Clay Jannon, newly unemployed, stumbles upon a mysterious bookshop during his frequent wanderings through the streets of San Francisco. The Help Wanted sign in the window seems like a sign of fate and he feels drawn into the bizarrely shaped store filled primarily with antique one-of-a-kind texts. Although far removed from his previous employment as a tech-savvy designer and marketer for a failed startup, Clay accepts the position of overnight sales clerk. Little does he realize that this spontaneous decision will catapult him into a mystery involving an ancient society whose cryptic workings will change the course of his life. Robin Sloan’s unique novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, brings together cutting-edge advances and time-worn tradition as they conflict and combine. Clay discovers that his embrace of new technology and a new-found respect for the methods of the past brings him great reward. Sloan’s novel also explores the idea that good things happen when people of different backgrounds combine their personal strengths and beliefs to solve problems. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a delightful exploration of how curiosity and innovation have acted as universal and timeless inspiration for the advancement of ideas. A good selection for those who enjoy mysteries that are more cerebral than action-packed.
The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon out of his life as a San Francisco Web-design drone—and serendipity, sheer curiosity, and the ability to climb a ladder like a monkey has landed him a new gig working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. But after just a few days on the job, Clay begins to realize that this store is even more curious than the name suggests. There are only a few customers, but they come in repeatedly and never seem to actually buy anything, instead "checking out" impossibly obscure volumes from strange corners of the store, all according to some elaborate, long-standing arrangement with the gnomic Mr. Penumbra. The store must be a front for something larger, Clay concludes, and soon he's embarked on a complex analysis of the customers' behavior and roped his friends into helping to figure out just what's going on. But once they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, it turns out the secrets extend far outside the walls of the bookstore.
With irresistible brio and dazzling intelligence, Robin Sloan has crafted a literary adventure story for the twenty-first century, evoking both the fairy-tale charm of Haruki Murakami and the enthusiastic novel-of-ideas wizardry of Neal Stephenson or a young Umberto Eco, but with a unique and feisty sensibility that's rare to the world of literary fiction. Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is exactly what it sounds like: an establishment you have to enter and will never want to leave, a modern-day cabinet of wonders ready to give a jolt of energy to every curious reader, no matter the time of day.
I loved this book! It starts slow with Clay explaining how he got to Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore but when he decides there is a mystery about it and it's decided lack of customers it picks up. As I followed Clay and his friends around as they try to unravel the mystery of the bookstore and Mr. Penumbra and his boss, I could not wait for the clues. I loved the pop culture references. When all is revealed I was satisfied. I would love to work in that bookstore.
It is even better the second time around.
What an interesting read, as in, I’ve never read anything quite like that before, and I’ve never come away from a book that was NOT a cookbook, thinking about food like I have with this one. Bread, glorious bread! It’s the central subject, and I was actually warned before reading it about the ‘dangers’ of reading it on an empty stomach, and about how you end up craving your carbs afterwards. A young lady who discovers a love of baking bread and gives up her life in the tech world is the simplest way to put this book, but it’s SO much more.
What I didn’t expect was the underlying long-distance love story, which I enjoyed very much, and several other little quirks that author Robin Sloan brings to the (restaurant) table. He has a way with words that is so unusual and full of fabulous descriptions that your senses are filled up when you read this book. I hate to admit it, but there were times that I was so distracted by the descriptions of noises (these were surprisingly the most amazing to me), smells, tastes, that I lost track of the story at times. Sloan also comes up with the most glorious names for characters! And the contrast in the book between technology and the basic act of doing something simple like baking bread is such a fantastic thing to think about. What may turn off some readers is the constant dialog about bacteria and fungus (which of course is central to the basis for starting off bread, as well as cheese); I’m not squeamish but it distracted me sometimes! But there’s a lot of science in cooking, and that has to brought up if you’re talking about this topic in-depth.
I can absolutely see this novel being made into a TV show, and these characters and the concept being written about by the creators of maybe ‘The Good Place’ plus the writers of ‘The Office’. There’s a lot of ‘food for thought’ for a TV version for something even beyond the confines of this book.
I can see why this has become an unusual, and almost ‘cult’ hit of a book; just don’t read it when you’re hungry.
*It’s also the best advertisement I’ve ever seen for King Arthur Flour.