Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Book Store, by Robin Sloan (2012)

It’s perhaps ironic that a book about books and a bookstore is so damn hard to write a book review about.

Clay Jannon lost his job at an upstart, high-tech bagel chain. Desperate for cash, he ends up getting a job at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore in San Francisco. What soon becomes a bafflement to Clay is that very few of the customers on his overnight shift seem interested in the store’s small new book selection. They ask for volumes from “the wayback” shelves, towering shelves of books with obscure names. Moreover, they don’t pay for the books: those patrons of the Wayback books all have library cards. They bring in one book, and leave with another.

One night, Clay opens one of the books, only to find that it’s gibberish, strings of letters that make no sense.

In time, he meets a young Google programmer named Kat Potente, who helps unlock one mystery of the shelves. This leads to a greater mystery, one involving Festina Lente,a secret cabal of book decoders hidden deep beneath New York City. Clay’s link to Festina Lente comes from Mr. Ajax Penumbra himself.

The Festina Lente group are trying to crack the code of a centuries-old manuscript that may–just may–contain the key to immortality.

Add in a common, though mysterious, font called Gerritszoon, and the entire mystery grows as thick as San Francisco sea fog.

My description doesn’t do this novel justice. The story is so wonderfully quirky and unusual, that it defies easy summation. The characters are unusual, yet so fully drawn, that you can’t help but fall in love with them (well, with MOST of them, anyway).

Clay comes off as being the most normal character in the book, and as such, he’s a perfect narrator. He seems to accept the eccentrics he encounters in stride, and he works with the information he’s given, regardless of how bizarre it may seem.

Author Robin Sloan has created a beautiful mythology living just below our workaday surface. Stir in the aforementioned eccentrics, and you have the recipe for a truly entertaining read.

Most Highly Recommended


About tom

B.A. in Literature, Minor in Film Theory and Criticism, thus meaning all I’m trained is to write blog posts here. Neptune is my favorite planet–it vents methane into the solar system like my brother does. I think Chicken McNuggets look like Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Indiana. There are times when I’m medicated, which is why I wrote about McNuggets. Buy some today and tell me I’m wrong! Anyway, Beyond that: mammal, Floridian, biped.Good Night, and Good Luck. Besos, tom
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