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Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel Paperback – September 24, 2013
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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--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
“A real tour de force [and] a beautiful fable...The reader is swept along by Sloan's enthusiasm.” ―George Saunders, BLIP Magazine
“Part love letter to books, part technological meditation, part thrilling adventure, part requiem... Eminently enjoyable, full of warmth and intelligence.” ―The New York Times Book Review
“A book about passion--for books, for history, for the future...There is nothing about Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore that I didn't love.” ―Cory Doctorow
“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...There's so much largehearted magic in this book.” ―NPR
“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
“Sloan 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.” ―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
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
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. The arguments are there in the book and clear for any reader to see without having to rely on asides, random conversations, or interruptions to the flow of the story.
And it is a good story. The mystery described in Mr. Penumbra will keep you flipping pages until the final reveal, which is more or less satisfying in its philosophy. Why does the book work? Because it's a good, old-fashioned mystery with all of our favorite characters and settings. Cultists in cloaks, old libraries, wealthy investors, hidden messages and cryptic clues, and an ensemble cast of characters who literally name themselves after DnD classes (the thief, the wizard, the warrior). It's hard not to have fun while reading Sloan's tale.
Unfortunately, these characters aren't developed at all. This was my biggest complaint with the book. No motivations are described aside from the grand one of "let's solve a mystery!" which puts these guys on a level with Scooby Doo. No change occurs in Clay, our main character, because he enters this book without any need to change. He has no inner-destination. Without a destination, there cannot be obstacles, and without obstacles there cannot be the all important conflict (the heart of any good book). Without this, the journey ends up feeling too easy. There's never anything at stake, because nothing has been risked. Even physical danger doesn't come into play, which should be raising some alarm bells for those of who are remembering the last paragraph. That's right: this is a book with cultists and there's no danger. The biggest risk is that they will fail to solve the mystery, but you know from page one that they are going to figure out the answer. It's just clear that this is that kind of book--a little too tidy, a little too nice to its characters.
Because of this flaw, Penumbra can only be called a success in the ideas it raises and the conversations it may start. And it does do a good job in this. It could've gone deeper and it could've been given more weight if supported by real characters dealing with problems a reader could relate to. It is just smart enough to make you think, and I appreciate that; but the premise itself promises more.
Sloan's story is tight, well-paced, and interesting. He uses language beautifully. There's humor and its more dignified cousin, wit. There are solid, vivid characters. Even minor characters are painted with enough detail to be interesting.
One thing: something about the title made me think of a YA (or even younger) novel, but while the... romantic aspects of this book are very understated (and thus appropriate, I think, for a younger audience) I don't the plot or characters would be that appealing to the under eighteen set. Maybe I'm wrong about that, and in any case it's not a criticism, merely an observation. Anyway, it's a book adults will enjoy.
Another thing: something about the title also implied a fantasy novel, but, while quirky, nothing in the book actually violates Reality As We Know It. Fantasy novels figure in the story to a modest degree, but this isn't a fantasy novel. You certainly don't have to be "into" fantasy to enjoy the book.
One final thing: I thought I guessed the ending. Then I thought I guessed another, equally plausible ending. I was delightfully wrong both times.