Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan: Satisfaction Guaranteed

Cover imageHard to beat the satisfaction of reading a book you’ve been looking forward to for months and finding it to be even better than your sky high expectations. I’ve been eagerly anticipating Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore ever since I spotted it in Atlantic’s catalogue way back in January. Set in the near future, it playfully meshes the old reading world which most of us still inhabit with new technology in a quirky edge of your seat story of bookish folk.

Unemployed thanks to a downturn, techno savvy Clay Jannon finds himself working the night shift at the eponymous bookstore. It’s just him behind the till – Oliver does evenings and Mr P takes the day shift. But this isn’t any old bookstore: Clay must log both the physical appearance and demeanour of the few customers that come through the door, most of them eccentrically attired and in an urgent, distracted state. Finding the ornately bound esoteric books they request is something of a challenge and involves climbing ladders up stacks reaching to the equivalent of three floors. When he looks inside one of the books and finds an impenetrable jumble of characters Clay’s suspicions are aroused. He sets about unravelling the puzzle of the Broken Spine, the society to which all the shop’s customers belong, accompanied by his beautiful new girlfriend – a rising Google star – his special effects genius roommate and his nerd-turned-millionaire best friend.

To reveal too much of the story would be to spoil the delight of discovery but suffice to say that it encompasses an ancient secret society, puzzle upon puzzle, a fifteenth century sage, extreme Google geekiness, the search for immortality and a bit of consternation about cassettes (remember them?) all served up with a good deal of humour. Erin Morgenstern is quoted as saying it was the first book that made her cry in 2013, and there’s a point at which I defy any reader not to feel tearful. It also has a happy ending so I will be handing it over to H who has just about been keeping his covetous mitts of it and for whom unhappy endings are to be avoided.

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