Friday, January 25, 2013

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Clay Jannings has been laid off from his web design job and he’s getting desperate. Then he stumbles across Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. They’re hiring.

Clay lands a job as graveyard-shift clerk, and in his boredom begins to unravel the store’s many secrets. Why are so many of the books illegibly encrypted? And why does the bookstore let people borrow the encrypted books, rather than buying them? How does this place even stay open? What’s really going on here?

Along with Kat, a cute hacker girl he he hopes to impress, Clay turns his tech-savvy problem-solving skills to the decidedly low-tech puzzle of the encoded books and the always-open bookstore. Clay and Kat solve the mystery before they even understand what the mystery is, sending ripples of horror through the strange secret society that controls Mr. Penumbra’s store. Then Clay’s boss, the kindly Mr. Penumbra, disappears. What have Clay and Kat done? Can they fix it?

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore explores, among other things, the intersection of old technology and new. Clay and his buddies use a computer to solve problems in a few hours that people have spent years studying in books - but do they actually learn anything? That makes the book sound rather serious, which it definitely isn’t; it’s fast-paced, peopled with interesting and exciting characters, and sometimes a little silly.

 This novel is a celebration of nerdery. When I say “nerd,” I don’t mean a person with thick glasses and poor social skills. (Necessarily.) I think of a nerd as a person who expends time and energy and passion on things that society doesn’t value very much - like role-playing games, scale models, or typeface design. By that definition, the characters in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore are all complete nerds. In Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, nerdery is a superpower; nerdery helps you find satisfaction, love, and truth.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a delightful little novel. Thick with references to current technology, it might feel obsolete six months from now. All the more reason to pick it up and read it today.

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