October 2012

A 21st-century tale of wonders

By Robin Sloan
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Robin Sloan’s funny debut novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, is both a celebration and a send-up of the clashing worlds of technology and those who cling to dead-tree books. After losing a job at the corporate headquarters of NewBagel, where “ex-Googlers” developed software to create the perfect bagel, Clay Jannon gets hired at an unconventional bookstore in San Francisco. Unconventional because it’s open 24 hours, has very few customers, is vertical—there are three stories worth of books you have to climb a ladder to retrieve—and the books are written in secret code. What at first seems to be a front for an illegal operation turns out to be connected with a cult, and Clay goes on a mission to solve the mystery that has been plaguing its members for centuries, enlisting the help of a quirky team, like the Google acolyte he’s dating, the friend who got rich by developing “boob-simulation software” and Mr. Penumbra himself, the hopeful store proprietor.

Though there’s a code to be cracked in these pages, the real treat of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is Sloan’s energetic storytelling—and the many, many lines that you will surely want to share on Facebook and tweet to the masses. (“He has the strangest expression on his face—the emotive equivalent of 404 PAGE NOT FOUND.” Or: “If fidgets were Wikipedia edits, I would have completely revamped the entry on guilt by now, and translated it into five new languages.”) Readers who don’t know a hashtag from a wiki will still appreciate the book’s ultimate message about friendship, and the conclusion that nothing—not even a world full of programmers and hackers—can substitute for a cunning mind.

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