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Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel Hardcover – October 2, 2012

4.1 out of 5 stars 2,111 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, October 2012 (Debut Spotlight): Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is an old school mystery set firmly in tech-loving, modern day San Francisco. Clay Jannon (former web designer) lands a job at a bookstore with very few patrons and even fewer purchases. His curiosity leads him to the discovery of a larger conspiracy at play, one exciting enough to rope in his best friend (CEO at a startup) and love interest (works at Google). As Clay and company unravel the puzzles of Mr. Penumbra's book shop, the story turns into a sort of nerdy heist, with real-life gadgets, secret societies, and a lot of things to say about the past, present, and future of reading. Sloan originally self-published Mr. Penumbra as a short story through Kindle Direct Publishing, before expanding it to its current form with a traditional print publisher--a fitting trajectory for a fast, fun story that has so wholly and enthusiastically embraced the tension between the digital and analog books. --Kevin Nguyen


“Delightful.” ―Graham Joyce, The Washington Post

“An irresistible page-turning novel.” ―Newsweek

“One of the most thoughtful and fun reading experiences you're likely to have this year . . . extremely charismatic . . . deeply funny . . . there's so much largehearted magic in this book . . . Sloan is remarkably gifted and has an obviously deep affection for both literature and technology.” ―Michael Schaub, NPR Books

“A jaunty, surprisingly old-fashioned fantasy about the places where old and new ways of accessing knowledge meet . . . [Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore] cleverly uses the technological age in the service of its fantasy . . . Sloan's ultimate answer to the mystery of what keeps people solving Penumbra's puzzle is worth turning pages to find out.” ―Tess Taylor, San Francisco Chronicle

“[A] winning literary adventure . . . Sloan grounds his jigsawlike plot with Big Ideas about the quest for permanence in the digital age.” ―Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly

“Fantastic . . . I loved diving into the world that Sloan created, both the high-tech fantasyland of Google and the ancient analog society. It's packed full of geeky allusions and wonderful characters, and is a celebration of books, whether they're made of dead trees or digits.” ―Jonathan H. Liu, Wired, GeekDad

“Robin Sloan cleverly combines the antiquated world of bibliophilia with the pulsating age of digital technology, finding curiosity and joy in both. He makes bits and bytes appear beautiful . . . The rebels' journey to crack the code--grappling with an ancient cult, using secret passwords and hidden doorways--will excite anyone's inner child. But this is no fantasy yarn. Mr. Sloan tethers his story to a weird reality, striking a comical balance between eccentric and normal . . . The pages swell with Mr. Sloan's nerdy affection and youthful enthusiasm for both tangible books and new media. Clay's chatty narration maintains the pace and Mr. Sloan injects dry wit and comedic timing suited to his geeky everyman . . . A clever and whimsical tale with a big heart.” ―The Economist

“Man, is this book fun--especially for any book nerd who isn't in denial about living in the modern age. If you love physical books (the smell! The feel!) but wouldn't give up your iPhone for any reason, if you like puzzles and geeky allusions and bookish cults and quests, then this book is for you. It also glows in the dark.” ―Emily Temple, Flavorpill

“What makes Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore so impressive is Sloan's great gift for storytelling and his cast of brilliant, eccentric characters. Think of this novel as part Haruki Murakami, part Dan Brown and part Joseph Cornell: a surreal adventure, an existential detective story and a cabinet of wonders at which to marvel.” ―Carmela Ciuraru, Newsday

“Beguiling . . . The plot is as tight as nesting boxes, or whatever their digital equivalent . . . Sly and infectious.” ―Karen R. Long, The Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Sloan isn't just exploring new ideas, but laying the groundwork for a new genre of literature. While the influence of Neal Stephenson and William Gibson is present, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is something all its own: a technocratic adventure where every riddle and puzzle is solved with very real gadgets, a humanizing reflection on technology that evokes the tone of a fairy tale, a brisk and brainy story imbued with such confidence that it will leave you with nothing but excitement about the things to come.” ―Kevin Nguyen, Grantland

“In a time when actual books are filling up tag-sale dollar boxes, along with VHS tapes and old beepers, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore reminds us that there is an intimate, adventurous joy in the palpable papery things called novels, and in the warm little secret societies we used to call ‘bookstores.' Robin Sloan's novel is delightfully funny, provocative, deft, and even thrilling. And for reasons more than just nostalgia, I could not stop turning these actual pages.” ―John Hodgman

“The love child of Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus and Neal Stephenson's Reamde, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is a hugely enjoyable story of friendship, living, and the lure of the mysterious. It's a good-hearted, optimistic book about the meeting of modern technology and medieval mystery, a tonal road map to a positive relationship between the old world and the new. It's a book that gets it. Plus, you know: cryptographic cults, vertical bookshops, hot geeks, theft, and the pursuit of immortality. I loved it. And yes, I too would freeze my head.” ―Nick Harkaway

“Robin Sloan is a skilled architect, and Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is an ingeniously designed space, full of mysteries and codes. A clever, entertaining story that also manages to be a thought-provoking meditation on progress, information and technology. Full of intelligence and humor.” ―Charles Yu

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is a real tour de force, a beautiful fable that is given legs by the author's bravado use of the real (Google is in there, for instance, the actual campus) to sell us on a shadow world of the unreal and the speculative. Robin Sloan comes across as so bighearted, so in love with the world--the ancient world, the contemporary world--so in love with love, in love with friendship, in love with the idea that our technical abilities can serve as conduits for beauty, that the reader is swept along by his enthusiasm. It's a lot of fun--but it's also a powerful reading experience with a wonderful undeniability.” ―George Saunders, in Blip Magazine


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (October 2, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374214913
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374214913
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1.1 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2,111 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #105,751 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By M. Hollingsworth on October 8, 2012
Format: Hardcover
There's so much in this slim volume that I'm not sure where to start. Here's the TLDR version: it's an utter delight, and you should buy it immediately.

Our hero is a graphic designer with some meager programming skills who is left jobless by the recession. He finds new work as a bookstore clerk, and soon discovers that the store is much more than it seems. His quest to uncover its secrets leads only to mysteries, eventually sending him not only across the country but (figuratively) back in time to when the technology to make books widely accessible first became available.

The "I love the smell of glue" crowd is represented, as are the "print is already dead" folks. Neither are wrong, because the book as object *and* the book as text are important in different ways. The vast power of the Internet is harnessed, often to great effect, but human handcraft is also vital.

That would be plenty, but there's so much more. For instance, consider the idea -- so casually tossed off -- that the world is simply filled with secret societies, the only hitch being that most of them don't realize that they're secret. Or ponder how the standard adventuring party from role-playing games, when the roles are translated into modern terms, actually is a fine combination of human resources for accomplishing a goal quickly. Or think on how movable-type presses were, in their day, the equivalent of a young Internet -- a new technology with limitless and thrilling potential to open vistas theretofore undreamed-of.

It's missing a few things, most notably combat and sex. I didn't miss them. I didn't even really notice their lack until I sat down to write this review. There's no need for faux excitement when there's so much genuine excitement. The book is so full of *story,* not to mention ideas, that the pages very nearly turn of their own accord.

Buy it. Read it. Rethink parts of your world.
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Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore is two books woven together. In one book, Clay Jannon happens upon a secret book cult while working at a mysterious store run by the eponymous Mr. Penumbra. In the other book, author Robin Sloan hijacks his characters' voices in order to deliver introductory lessons on font type, The Singularity, immortality, and anything else that happens to interest him.

If it sounds like that last sentence is being written in an annoyed tone, you're only getting half of my emotions. The truth is, I enjoy Sloan's viewpoints and his interests. The way they are written and explained is--like the rest of the book--not only entertaining but even gripping. This is because Sloan employs a casual voice throughout the book that makes you feel like you're hanging out with him at a coffee shop in downtown San Francisco. Sloan sits across from the reader for the entire book and doesn't let the written words overtake what is being said.

Having explained that, I must admit that annoyance is definitely there. These scenes of history and theory are not fit neatly into the narrative of the main plot: which involves the mystery of the cult. Instead they take place at odd interludes--while characters are having drinks or going out on dates. The reader rarely understands why these characters are talking about these things and many of the subjects raised do not have a bearing on the plot.

They could have! The most interesting conversation Sloan starts is a much more subtle one. It involves the question of "Digital versus Physical" (this was particularly ironic for me, reading the book on a Kindle) and gives some startling examples of what cannot be done with all of our vast technology that CAN be done through tactile sensation.
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Mr. Penumbra is one of those books that start a story with a quite good concept. The central narrative is crafted well. The scenes are described concretely and with attractive texture. I think the characters, however, came and went without much, if any, depth.

But I am willing to be charitable on character. This is a fantasy tale, in the best sense of the word -- and fantasies can be skimpy on characterization. Its narrative leads to some ultimate statements that may or may not correspond to reality: this is expected, of course, in the fantasy genre.

Here is the intriguing point. That very possibility -- that the final revelation of the novel's central gnosis is less than metaphysical -- is itself the most fantastical notion of the book.

Nevertheless, this most fantastical conclusion is articulated in a way that does not do justice to the richness of everything the writer has invested in the tale -- even his less-than-solid characterizations.

I enjoyed Mr. Penumbra. However, it joins an ever-lengthening shelf of recent books that promise a lot at the outset, and even succeed at establishing an attractive world, but do not advance a conclusion that is worthy of the beginning.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I had placed this book on my "want" list as soon as I read a blurb about it some months ago. The concept was one that I hoped would not let me down. It didn't. Not one bit.

Number one, Mr. Sloan writes well. Number two, he can tell an enjoyable story. Number three, he understands that the past still has meaning in the present (and the future).

The story is deeply simple: a semi-secret society is trying to translate a five-hundred year old encoded volume in order to learn the secret to immortality. The robe wearing members race to be the first to do the decoding. This society recruits new novices through a series of bookstores.

Aside: the first minute I spent in Mr. Penumbra's was grand; just like the first moment I spent in a "real" antiquities type of bookstore over half a century ago. I still remember the smell of those books and it wafted through the room as I read this book (in a room with nearly two thousand books).

Our protagonist, Clay Jannon, goes to work in Mr. Penumbra's bookstore and proceeds, as Mr. Penumbra, hoped/knew he would, to break the rules Mr. P. had laid down. Clay has friends of the type we all need to have when we need help or money or extra brains or a date. This is a reminder that, for most of us, there are many fictional elements to the story.

Clay and his army somewhat secretly seek to bring the five-hundred year old book into synch with the present and put all the resources of google at work to decode it. All that follows is then devoted to that effort. I found myself turning the pages faster than I would have liked and the end came too soon.

Comparisons are made on the back cover of the ARC to Haruki Murakami and Neal Stephenson.
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