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Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore Paperback – September 24, 2013
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The New York Times Bestseller
A Winner of the Alex Award, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction, named a Best Book of the Year by NPR, Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Chronicle
The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon away from life as a San Francisco web-design drone and into the aisles of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. But after a few days on the job, Clay discovers that the store is more curious than either its name or its gnomic owner might suggest. The customers are few, and they never seem to buy anything―instead, they "check out" large, obscure volumes from strange corners of the store. Suspicious, Clay engineers an analysis of the clientele's behavior, seeking help from his variously talented friends. But when they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, they discover the bookstore's secrets extend far beyond its walls. Rendered with irresistible brio and dazzling intelligence, Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is exactly what it sounds like: an establishment you have to enter and will never want to leave.
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“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
About the Author
- Publisher : Picador Paper (September 24, 2013)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 288 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1250037751
- ISBN-13 : 978-1250037756
- Item Weight : 9.6 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.47 x 0.76 x 8.24 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #48,224 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- #709 in Magical Realism
- #3,850 in Paranormal & Urban Fantasy (Books)
- #3,892 in Literary Fiction (Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
Reviewed in the United States on November 7, 2017
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THESE ARE SPOILERS but maybe you can find the explanations, I couldn't:
The first code solved was the face hidden in the Wayback List, which was discovered by decoding the books in the correct order. How did they know the correct order? Leaving aside the questions of the need to individually decode each book and figure out which one to tackle next, how did the flock of crazy decoding readers ever envision the pattern created by the location of the books on the shelves when they were never allowed to go to the back shelves? And it is a great many books that would have been needed to map out an entire, recognizable face.
Edgar Deckle is a librarian. He would have known to look for the punches in the Accession Table.
Then the challenge of decoding the Manutius tome: The book is scanned by Google and the entire world of Google decrypters tries to solve the code it is written in. They fail.
But the book is written in a code based on numbering the font punches on a set introduced on page 240 of the paperback (which is sort of a deus ex machina.)
The number assigned to each punch is indicated by teeny-tiny notches on the edge of each letter. With the set containing both capitals and small letters, plus variations of some letters, and possibly numbers, punctuation and who knows what dingbats, there should be at very least 60+ punches. That would mean that some punches would have up to 60+ teeny-tiny notches carved in them and still they would not be visible without a magnifying glass. But they are big enough to be seen with a magnifying glass. And apparently no one has ever magnified them before or blown up the size of the type on their computer. (If they had been visible, someone would have said that the surfaces were damaged and fixed them. Of course, when new type is made from a mold, it is closely checked for imperfections -- but never mind.) No one has ever noticed these grooves in the most popular type face ever, and still in use. So a leap of faith is required here. Onward.
Jannon discovers that in the Manutius code "one number corresponds to one letter [or one punch]. It's a simple substitution." This would indicate that the Manutius book is a long series of numbers. This is very simple cryptology - code breaking. With the knowledge that the language is Latin and an analysis of letter frequency and patterns in Latin, any cryptologist would have this deciphered in short order. The Google super-computing brought to bear on it would have figured it out very fast.
A further leap of weirdness is introduced here: "When you lay the punches out in order--the same order they'd use in a case in a 15th century print shop--you get" Gerritszoon's secret message:
"Thank you, Teobaldo You are my greatest friend This has been the key to everything"
It is unlikely that the original set of punches, even with duplicates for caps and small letters, would have had the number of duplicates required by this statement. The punches are not sets of type. The punches are the original hand-crafted letters from which molds are made. If it had been in English, there would have been 10 small e's, for starters. Running it through Google Translate, there would have been 10 small a's and 8 small i's in the Latin version.
And these a's and i's in the Latin would not have been grouped together as they would have been in their original box. In other words, in the box they most likely would have read: A a B b C c D d ........or all caps first, then all small letters. In the box they would not have been arranged as: T-h-a-n-k y-o-u-, T-e-o-b-a-l-d-o etc. I don't accept that as the "same order they'd use in a case in the 15th century print shop." In addition, the message in Latin does not use all the letters in the alphabet, so some would be left over and be all out of order.
What I liked about this book is that Sloan seems to love the application of human intelligence to problem solving, and computer solutions are the application of the same intelligence. He loves the adventure of friends working together on a mission to solve problems. And in the end it is having a trusted friend that was all-important to Gerritszoon. He mentions the spirits that seem to reside in the books lining the book store shelves. He seems to love the books which are certainly one kind of immortality, as is any human creation that comes down to us through the ages. And he has a lively, intelligent sense of humor. This is a very clever book. I can't imagine why the cryptology is so out of whack. But keep writing, boy, keep writing.
It's also beautifully written. I don't read "literary fiction". I'm a genre snob. But if this is literary fiction, then I like it. The metaphors and turns of phrase are wonderful. "Feeding hours like dry twigs into the fire," the author writes. He's conscious of language. "Moffat's prose is fine: clear and steady, with just enough sweeping statements about destiny and dragons to keep things well inflated," he says, describing the fictional fantasy novels which play such an important role in the plot, and it could almost be a description of his own writing. He also has semicolons, and he knows how to use them.
There's humour that comes from an affectionate, almost loving, way of seeing the absurdity of the world, and from masterfully chosen, mostly technological juxtapositions. "The thinnest tendrils of dawn are creeping in from the east. People in New York are softly starting to tweet." Later, the protagonist's Googler girlfriend buys a New York Times "but couldn't figure out how to operate it".
I only spotted a single typo ("left" instead of "loft"), and that level of professionalism is vanishingly rare.
So: language, 5 stars. I wish every other book I've read recently was written more like this one.
Plot, then. The plot is beautifully woven. Not a Chekhov's gun is left unfired. There are about 20 named characters, and virtually all of them, even most of the minor ones, get to participate in the great wrap-up of the epilogue. It's missing one element of the classic happy ending, but that feels absolutely right, and it's better than a happy ending: it's a beautiful ending. It's a rich, wonderful ending. I've often been disappointed by weak endings to books I've otherwise enjoyed, but this is one of my favourite endings of any book I can think of. Five stars for plot, even if the protagonist's ultimate triumph is built on an unlikely mistake earlier in the book, and even if a couple of the events are also unlikely (like Google allowing a relatively minor project to take all their server time for three seconds).
And partway through it turns into a heist novel! I love heist novels.
Characters. I liked the main character almost immediately. He's having a somewhat difficult time, but he has perspective and wry humour about it, and he doesn't whine. He's capable of admiring and respecting other people greatly, including intelligent, strong women: "I am really into the kind of girl you can impress with a prototype," he says. His love for his eccentric, elderly mentor is an important part of what drives the plot.
The other characters are all quirky without being self-conscious about it, all (seen through the protagonist's eyes) people of skill and worth and, in general, goodwill. I loved every one of them. Five stars and at least three cheers for the characters.
Finally, setting. The book takes place in some wonderfully bizarre places: a tall, narrow bookstore full of mysterious volumes, an underground cavern of cultish scholarship, a textile museum, a storage unit for museum artifacts in the dryness of Nevada where motorized shelves move constantly in a stately dance. That last was totally unlikely. Wouldn't you want to keep valuable, rare items still? And yet it the feel of it was just right, much more so than a more realistic, static building would have been.
Even the protagonist's apartment gradually fills with his artist roommate's strange and wonderful miniature city.
You could say that the setting is the real world, but you'd be wrong. Aldus Manutius existed, but his friend Gerritszoon didn't, and Gerritszoon's font isn't on every electronic device, because it doesn't exist either. Nor, presumably, does the cult of scholars known as the Unbroken Spine. I have no idea whether Google really works the way it's described, but it wouldn't surprise me at all to hear that it doesn't. And there's one very minor mistake that I know is a mistake: what the main character calls "middleware" is not what middleware actually is.
No, this setting isn't the real world. It's better. Apart from anything else, it has the epic fantasy novels of Moffat in it.
Five stars for the setting as well, making it a perfect 20 for this book. Oh, there are things I've quibbled about, but none of them significantly diminished my enjoyment. I'll be looking for more of Robin Sloan's books. I hope they're like this one.
Top reviews from other countries
The story’s main character is Clay who, after losing his job, is at a loss as to what to do with himself. He is in his early 20’s and feels like everyone around him has got their life together, except him. Late one night, Clay spots a sign for a night clerk in a 24 bookstore and after a brief ‘interview’ with Mr Penumbra, Clay is offered the job for the night shifts. Clay’s job to serve the eclectic customers and write down every exact detail of the encounter. As time goes on we realise that there is a lot more going on in the store than in a traditional book shop and we follow Clay and his friends as we figure out what is going on.
This book seems to have everything that I should love; an international secret society, impossibly complex codes hidden inside a series of books, an ancient mystery, modern solutions, tech-savvy characters, villains and heroes. But this book fell short for me.
I could not shake the feeling that this story was Ready Player One all over again. The main character, sub-characters, storyline and rhythm are all the same (although the basis of the story is different). I loved Ready Player One and I found myself drawing comparisons and Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore was nowhere near as good.
The characters in Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore are really typical; a likable but annoying male lead, a millionnaire genius best friend, and intelligent young woman with good connections and who is also a love interest, an artist, a bad guy who looks mean and a doddery and mysterious old man. The story overall is really a YA story and is not a challenge to read and with the book being so short there is no real time to go into the backstory or gain any real insights into the characters and the ending seemed to approach really quickly. The book is very pro Kindles and Google, so much so that it feels a bit like advertising sometimes.
Overall, I think if you read this with an open mind and no real expectations, you’ll find a likeable, quick and very easy read but I think it's been done before and done better in Ready Player One.
I enjoyed the premise, but we don't spend a lot of time in the bookstore of the title. This book is a sort of mystery adventure about books, archives, and museums and I liked the time the book spent on these nerdy topics.
I found the characters to be very convenient for the plot...our man needs someone to do a very specific task that involves highly specialised skills, well he's in luck because his flatmate does intricate model building, his love interest is a manic pixie tech whizz, and his best friend from school is a millionaire! Everyone was a little 2D, and the tone felt a bit "laddish"/ "blokey" while also feeling hipster...lots of talk about kale smoothies and vegan oatmeal cookies and obsolete hobbies.
Overall, if you want a slightly nerdy-edged sci-fi mystery, I'd give this book a go. But it's not as good as I thought it would be.
So much going on, with wonderful characters and a great central mystery which is determined to uncover with the help of various talented friends who are well skilled in hi-tech BUT - isn't there always a but - could his delving be doing more harm than good?
There is so much more than the surface to be read in this tale which seems to be superficially new against old, youth against experience and it is fun every inch of the way.
A vastly entertaining and very clever read. Enjoy!
The story opens with newly unemployed Clay securing the night shift at Mr Penumbra’s 24 hr bookstore, and it’s not long before he realises that the dusty tomes it houses are written in code and attract a very strange group of readers. Before long, Clay, aided by a few friends, finds himself drawn into a world of secret society, a centuries old mystery, and a mission to save Mr Penumbra from the infamous ‘burning’.
Part mystery and part quest, the author has created perhaps the most unlikely bunch of adventurers ever to take-on such a challenge. Without exception, these are archetypal Mr and Ms Anoraks, but with a high-tech spin. Obsessed with Google, web creation, mobiles, and just about every other piece of communication technology, Clay and friends embark on a cloak-and-dagger mission to solve the code and save Mr Penumbra.
There’s really only one way to get the most out of this book, and that’s to let your inner teenager run riot! Just as the secret to decoding the books lies within plain sight, so does the humour in this book…it’s all just a matter of perspective. You just need to dial-back your ‘steady adult’ persona, and let your youthful optimist run free.
Overall: A brilliant blending of old and new in a highly entertaining romp. And, there’s a super-sweet ending too.
This is a very quirky little book, verging on the bizarrely odd. The 24 Hour Bookstore of the title is a bibliophiles dream but only the select few are allowed to look at the strange three storey collection of books, books that Clay can find no record for online. Even odder he is instructed to note down not just which book someone takes out but their demeanour, their dress but Clay needs the job after the bagel start-up he worked at folded so he goes along with it.
Unusually for a book based around a bookstore it doesn't decry the advent of the e-reader, it celebrates it, noting that it has its place amongst real bound books - most of us do still read both after all. In fact, it is all a bit of a celebration of technology and the things it can do for us, against the things we accede to it, showing that it can be used for "good". As Clay gets bored on the night shift (I know that feeling) he starts trying to map the store out in a 3D wireframe and thats when things start to get interesting as he plots the order books are taken out by this odd group of people who visit at all hours and sees something he never expected. Recruiting his tech savvy 6th grade schoolfriend Neel, his artist flatmate Mat(?) and a girl he met in the store, Kat they go on a good old fashioned quest to get to the bottom of what is happening when Mr Penumbra goes missing.
Told with whimsy and delight by the author it is a fun read, just not quite as captivating as it first appeared to be. After the first couple of chapters I actually dreamt about the Bookstore and thought I had it cracked as to what was going - I was wildly wrong, so maybe that disappointment coloured things for me a little. There's also a little too much felicitous good fortune for Clay and his band of adventurers so everything comes together for them rather too easily for comfort - I'm also left wondering why it was necessary to point out that Neel is African-American when the racial profile of the other characters is never really mentioned.
It is a a fun blend of old-school nerdiness (The Dragon-Song Chronicles books that first brought Neel and Clay together, Mat(?) with his tiny architectural models and the frequent references to role playing games in the disguise of Rockets and Warriors) and modern technology (Kat and her Google job, Clay and his Ruby programming, Mr Penumbra's vast collection of eReaders). A nice bit of derring-do and cryptography thrown in and it is an enjoyable ride, it just left me feeling a little "wanting" and I'm not sure why.