Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, 304 pp, RL TEEN

Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore 

Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan is a book written for adults, but the plot is built around so many cultural techie references with an underlying current that is part Harry Potter, part Tolkien and just a tiny bit Umberto Ecco's The Name of the Rose meets Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code, that it is perfect for teens open to reading something new and different that also feels comfortably familiar. And, for concerned parents, there is no violence to speak of in Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, no sex, or, if it did happen it was very much off-the-page, and no obscenities. The one possible, minimally, objectionable aspect of the book is Anatomix, the company started by the protagonist's childhood friend, that rose to prominence by developing a software program that perfectly simulates famous breasts. But, best of all Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is the kind of book I loved as a teenager - one with so many references to new people, places and things that there is no way you can NOT want to dig in and find out more. And, as opposed to when I was a teenager and had to wander through the teetering shelves of musty paperbacks in a used bookstore or resort to pulling out a volume of the encyclopedia my parents bought in 1968 to track down references to people, places and things, readers today can, with a few quick keystrokes, consult Google, Wikipedia and the like, in all likelihood using the same device they are reading Robin Sloan's book on, to find out more about the cornucopia of culture in this fantastic book.

Sloan is thirty-two and has held executive positions at Current TV and Twitter that had to do with figuring out the future of media. He now describes himself as a writer and media inventor which, as he defines it, is "someone primarily interested in content - words, pictures, ideas - who also experiments with new formats, new tools, and new technology." I tell you all this about Sloan because Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is a kaleidoscope of so many fascinating things that I want to assure you that Sloan has credentials and does not employ any aspect of his plot lightly. From cryptography, fonts and terra-cotta roof tiles to laser cutters housed in pop-up pizza shops run from the basement of an abandoned buildings in NYC; from a scholarly dwarf, an astrolabe, the Singularity, and a 500 year old secret society based on the coded manuscript left behind by the 15th century Venetian printer Aldus Manutius, inventor of italics, among other things, to  the perfect 3D rendering of the human body and a handmade "bloodthirsty demon with blue-denim skin" that is part of a horror movie set in an Abercrombie & Fitch being made by a character who works for Industrial Light and Magic, Sloan's book is a non-stop feast for the reader.

But, enough list-making, the plot! Clay Jannon is an art school graduate (RISD is implied but not named) who has lost his first job out of college - running the Web operations for two former Googlers's start-up bagel company that has gone under. Walking the streets of San Francisco, Clay comes across Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore that, besides an interesting logo (see below) has a help wanted sign in the window. Despite the fact that "legitimate employers use Carigslist," Clay decides to apply within.  Upon entering the store, he notes that, rather than having customers looking for books about teenage wizards, this is the kind of "store that makes you want to be a teenage wizard." Clay is offered the 10 pm - 6 am shift at the bookstore and immediately begins to notice peculiarities, starting with the fact that the store seems to be as narrow and tall as a traditional bookstore is wide, necessitating three-story high climbs up ladders from time to time. Customer traffic is occasional, especially during Clay's shift, and he sets to work right away on his laptop creating web content and ads for the store in an effort to drum up business. Another oddity about the store is the stock. A small area in the front of the store is dedicated to used copies of traditionally stocked books while the rest of the store consists of seemingly single editions of books written in code, referred to by Clay as the "Waybacklist." This totally cracked me up because "back list" is bookseller lingo for books published more than a year ago, and "wayback" reminds me of the WABAC Machine from the Sherman and Mr Peabody cartoons (which is being made into a movie by DreamWorks) as well as the actual Wayback Machine, which, as I learned while googling, is an archive of over 150 billion webpages started in 1996 and also named for the machine invented by Mr Peabody, the genius talking dog. See? There is so much going on in Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore it is virtually impossible not to digress.

The most important part of Clay's job, after retrieving a book from the Waybacklist for a customer who is a member of a club with a library card of sorts, is to record the as many details about the customer and the time and quality of the day as possible when he or she enters the store into a log book kept under the counter. Penumbra has an ancient Mac Plus where he has archived the waybacklist, making the books easier to find, since the shelving system is beyond Clay. Without much to do during his shifts, Clay creates a 3D model of the bookstore, dumps the archives from the Mac Plus into the program on his laptop then decides to use a log book to add the borrowing habits of the patrons into the program and look for patterns. He quickly realizes that the borrowing history of a patron, when mapped out on the shelves, creates a face. And, just as quickly, he finds himself in the midst of the secretive Unbroken Spine, a society who's motto is "Festina Lente," or make haste slowly. A power struggle, a clash of ideas and the potential downfall of Mr Penumbra - or the revelation of a centuries old secret that could be the key to longevity - are all wrapped up in this mystery. Clay uses up-to-the-minute technology, the help of a diverse group of very talented, smart young friends, and, at times, things as antiquated as cassette tapes and metal type punches, to unravel the secrets of the Unbroken Spine. The most satisfying part of Clay's quest and Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is the fact that Clay solves the mystery by returning to his favorite book trilogy from childhood, the one that bonded him to his best friend and creator of Anitomix Neel Shah, the Dragon-Song Chronicles.

Sloan has a Dickensian way with names and I just have to share a few here. Mr Penumbra himself is a shadowy figure, then there is Corvina (corvidae - raven), the First Reader, head of the Unbroken Spine and former friend of Penumbra's who is raven-like in looks and manner. Kat Potente is the whip smart, passionate Googler who is obsessed with the Singularity and living forever and, at one point, has the full force of her employer working for her as she gathers the fellowship on the Mountain View, CA Campus of Google to decode the encrypted CODEX VITAE of Manutius, and event that uses so much computer force that Google.com is goes dark for three seconds. There is also an Oliver Grone, an Edgar Deckle and, as I learned when reading Valerie Ryan's review for the Seattle Times, a reference to a 19th century physicist in the character of Tyndall. And, there is Clay's favorite new website, Grumble, which, to me, perfectly represents all that Sloan has synthesized in Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore:

Grumble is a person, probably a human male, a secretive programmer who operates at the intersection of literature and code - part Hacker News, part Paris Review. . . Grumble manages a bustling pirate library. He writes complicated code to break the DRM on e-books; he builds complicated machines to copy the words out of real books. If he worked for Amazon, he'd probably be rich. But instead he cracked the supposedly uncrackable Harry Potter series and posted all seven e-books on his site, free to download - with a few changes. Now, if you want to read Potter without paying, you suffer fleeting references to a young wizard named Grumblegrits who studies at Hogwarts alongside Harry. It's not so bad; Grumblegrits gets a few good lines.

Finally, as a bookseller who worked in the industry long enough to see how the digital world changed the face of my workplace, not always in ways that I liked, I do not necessarily rejoice in feelings of superiority over the way Sloan has his protagonist unravel the well-plotted mystery that is at the heart of Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. While Clay ultimately solves the mystery alone, without the help of the collective brain and computer power high-tech prodigies, to me, the great triumph of Robin Sloan's superb debut novel and real reason to rejoice is the way that he presents, not pits, the world of paper books side by side with the world of computers and digital devices. And, he presents them in a hopeful way that makes coexistence and not extinction seem entirely possible.

One last thing - the dust jacket for 
Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore GLOWS IN THE DARK!!!

Illustration by comic book artist Laura Terry for a review of this book at SLATE.

Source: Audio Book, Purchased

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