Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

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For June, book group decided to read Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, suggested by a member of the group after they had recently read it. We do not normally choose books that someone has just finished; however, this book seemed far too intriguing to miss out on. Plus we were sold when we discovered that within the book there is a secret society called the Fellowship of the Unbroken Spine (book group’s official name is Broken Spines). A book, about a book shop and books, for a book group – perfect!

Mr Penumbra owns a quite peculiar book shop on the west coast of the United States; the interior dimensions of the shop are described as like a regular book shop but flipped on one side so it becomes narrow and very tall. The shop itself has floor to ceiling shelves (about three storeys high) that are accessible by an old fashioned, and very tall, ladder. When Clay Jannon begins working the night shift as the shops only night clerk, he notices that the shop is made up of a couple of shelves of regular books that are for sale, and then a huge collection of older, seemingly one-off books that are available to ‘members’ only on loan. It is these beautifully bound rarities, along with the odd characters that borrow them, that pull the reader into the novel to start with. Clay not only tends the book shop but must also writes an account of every customer that comes in. He must describe every customer in detail, from what they are wearing and how they are acting, to what they borrowed/bought with their customer number. It is from this intriguing premise that the book unfolds.

Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a novel for book lovers everywhere; it definitely appealed to my inner geek. Although this is a book about books, it is also about technology and the future of books. It is very much a 21st Century novel embracing the technological world that we live in today and having this offset against a very traditional industry. Throughout the novels entirety we are reminded that we live in a fast moving world and have the ability to discover worldwide knowledge in an instant. Even though I did enjoy this aspect of the novel, I did find that as the book went on I was getting a little tired of hearing how great and clever Google and the people whom work there are. Sloan provides us with an interesting and diverse description of the wonders of technology and particular Google, but after a while it felt like a bit of an advert. However, despite this I still found the book highly enjoyable.

What I particularly liked about Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore were the characters. The main character Clay was very likable and narrates the story well, his Google girlfriend is also a fun character. But, Mr Penumbra and Clay’s housemate Mat really steal the show. Both of these characters are quirky and add a certain flamboyancy to the plot which cannot be matched by any other people in the book. Mr Penumbra, the elder statesman within the novel, is a man of secrets that also has more than a little spark left in him. He is quite elusive at first and the intrigue surrounding him is built up throughout the first part of the novel; his character then really shines through the centre of the book. Mat is an artist who works for ILM creating film props; his gradual construction of ‘Matropolis’ within the novel coupled with his striking personality made him really stand out from the crowd. I would happily read a novel about Mat.

Overall, I really enjoyed Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. It was fun to read, quite funny in places, and different. Fast paced and set in a technologically advanced world, the book shop of the title fits perfectly to remind the reader where we (the human race) have come from. Luckily all this technological advancement has not threatened the concept of a book or the transfer of knowledge through literature. The book is alive and well in the 21st Century and long may it remain…

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