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

Title: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
Author: Robin Sloan
Genre: Fiction
ISBN: 1-25-003775-1
Published: October 2012, Picador
Purchase: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

penumbra

Main Characters: Clay, Mr. Penumbra, Kat, and Neel

Synopsis: Clay is laid off from his techie job, so he applies at the only place that’s hiring: a tall, skinny, 24-hour bookstore in chilly San Francisco. He ends up working the night shift, which sees an average of three visitors a week. Some of these visitors, though, are rather odd. They come in looking for something very specific, and every time, it’s from the section Clay is forbidden to look at. Naturally, one lonely evening, curiosity gets the better of him, and he opens a forbidden book. It’s full of… jibberish. What in the world?! Clay embarks on a mission of discovery: what’s in these books? Who are these people? Who is Mr. Penumbra? With a little help from his friends, Clay enlists the power of technology to aid in his quest, and ends up making a discovery that no one in 500 years has been able to unmask.

Memorable Quotes:

  • This girl has the spark of life. This is my primary filter for new friends (girl- and otherwise) and the highest compliment I can pay. I’ve tried many times to figure out exactly what ignites it– what cocktail of characteristics comes together in the cold, dark cosmos to form a star. I know it’s mostly in the face– not just the eyes but the brow, the cheeks, the mouth, and the micromuscles that connect them all.
  • Programming is not all the same. Normal written languages have different rhythms and idioms, right? Well, so do programming languages. The language called C is all harsh imperatives, almost raw computer-speak. The language called Lisp is like one long, looping sentence, full of subclauses, so long in fact that you usually forget what it was even about in the first place. The language called Erlang is just like it sounds: eccentric and Scandinavian. I cannot program in any of these languages, because they’re all too hard. But Ruby, my language of choice since NewBagel, was invented by a cheerful Japanese programmer, and it reads like friendly, accessible poetry. Billy Collins by way of Bill Gates.
  • There’s a stack of books on the table and a metal cup with pointy pencils that smell fresh and sharp. In the stack, there are copies of Moby-Dick, Ulysses, The Invisible Man— this is a bar for bibliophiles.
  • Kat comes slowly up the steps. She looks dejected and disheartened– worse than when she thought she’d been passed over for the PM. “Well, I guess they’re wrong,” she says, waving weakly at the fellowship. “There’s no message here. It’s just noise. We tried everything.”
    “Well, not everything, right–”
    She looks up hotly. “Yes, everything. Clay: we just dialed in the equivalent of, like, a million years’ worth of human effort. It came up empty.” Her face is flushed– angry, or embarrassed, or both. “There’s nothing here.”

Review: I completely adored this book. I wasn’t immediately enthralled with the prospect– all right, the books are in jibberish, so what?– but once Clay figured out who the people were, I was hooked. The idea of a secret society whose lifetimes are bound up in the translation of these books, figuring out a secret code, and writing their own life stories in said code, all for the promise of eternal life? Fascinating! Some might call it dedication, some might call it nutty, but to Clay, it was just a puzzle that needed solving.

Being originally from the San Francisco area and having many Googler friends was a real treat for me as well. I loved his descriptions of the city. I loved the trips to Google. I loved being able to say, “Hey, I’ve been there!” as I read.

I love that it ended up being a code not even Google could break. Nothing but regular ol’ human detective work. Traveling, thinking, seeing. People worry sometimes that computers are going to take over the world, and yes, Google has some programs that have gotten away from their programmers (see this article about Google’s photo recognition), but stories like this give me hope that they won’t. There are just always going to be some things that computer cannot understand.

Another good example of that feeling comes from the second Star Wars movie (Episode II, that is, not Episode V). Obi-Wan Kenobi is trying to find out whose poison dart he has, but the robots cannot figure it out. So he takes it to someone with a brain. Someone who can analyze niches and curves and the way the interact in a way a robot will never be able to, even in a world as futuristic as the one Star Wars presents us with.

At any rate, let’s get back to the story at hand. Clay is an amazing character. He reads very well. As a female reader, I wasn’t ever convinced for a second that this was a story that could only be happening to a man. There were no overt “manliness” reference, no call for brute strength. This story had a complete absence of both explosive action and sex. Don’t get me wrong: “complete absence” here means simply that it wasn’t there. It wasn’t missing. There was no need for it. This novel was brilliant without it. Adding it in would’ve been completely unnecessary fluff.

Kat was also an amazing character. A woman who was both beautiful and completely, utterly brilliant. She’s one of the top Googlers. This is no small feat– do you know how many  people Google employs in Silicon Valley alone?! She wields incredible technological power and isn’t afraid to use it.

I think probably my favorite part out of the entire book was when Clay drives to Nevada to look through a museum archival warehouse. Naturally, as the author explains, not everything historical can ever be on display in museums at once. So there are huge warehouses where things pick up dust, waiting for their chance to be once more cycled into the soft lights of an exhibit. Remember Harry Potter’s Room of Requirement in the seventh novel, when it’s displaying its true form as a thousand shelves full of knick-knacks? This warehouse is rather like that. The shelves even move! They are all on tracks, and when something is needed, the warehouse has the ability to call up whatever shelf they need and have it zip to its destiny.

I’m not usually one for mystery novels, but this isn’t your traditional mystery novel. It’s really just a story about a couple people and a fantastic bookstore who happen across one of the most well-kept secret societies in history. Do yourself a favor and pick this one up.

Bonus: the cover glows in the dark.

Rating: ★★★★½

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