Thursday, November 8, 2012

Step Inside Mr. Penumbra's Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra
Step inside Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore and let it work its magic. Never mind that the sparse antiquity titles up front are dwarfed by the floor-to-ceiling shelves of coded text in back. This hole-in-the-wall bookstore has attracted a tiny company of oddly delightful and infinitely eccentric followers.

At least, that is the way Clay Jannon might tell it. After being laid off as a graphic artist/Web designer for a failed gourmet bagel company in San Francisco, Jannon was desperate for a job. It didn't really matter that being a bookstore clerk meant joining the ranks of the underemployed. Working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore felt like a safe bet.

Then again, it depends how you define safe. 

Sure, it only takes a little practice to climb the ladders and fetch obscure titles safely. It only takes a little patience, knowing that almost nobody buys anything. The one or two frantic, anxious, or inexplicably dazed customers who do come are mostly interested in "checking out" books from the back. Even the strip club next store that gets slightly seedier is probably harmless, compared to a bigger conspiracy.

That is, after all, what Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is all about. There is a conspiracy attached to this incredibly tall and impossibly thin storefront. And all that Jannon knows, while killing time trying to program a more efficient catalog directory or writing Google ads to attract one more customer, is that it seems to involve ancient cryptography. Well, maybe not ancient but certainly very old.

Jean Jannon
To break the code, without overtly treading where his gnomish employer might not want him to, all he really needs is what any former fantasy role player might need — a company of fine fellows to share in his adventure, preferably a warrior and wizard to round out his rogue abilities.

He knows the warrior well enough. His best friend and former fantasy role-playing pal, who now owns a programming company best known for it software that renders realistic anatomical parts for games (breasts, specifically), would find it difficult to pass up on a real-life mystery. The other, a programming wizard, works at the Google campus. She was the one and only person to respond to his ad.

The novel is an entertainingly modern and somewhat geeky delight.

There is a carefree, never-quite-moved-past-collegiate literary tone to Robin Sloan's novel Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, which become quickly addictive from the start. His comedic literary voice is convincing enough that the characters who populate this bibliophile-meets-tech head world work, all without relying on sex, violence, or even the bigness of a climactic finish.

Instead, he packs this optimistic, magical yet surprisingly believable adventure with the allure of a real-world mystery. He also keeps the fun read on target as the story becomes a race between Penumbra, a light-hearted faction of an ominous cult who has been attempting to decipher a centuries-old secret stumbled upon by one of the world's first publishers, and the much more secretive and sinister majority.

With the cult of Google clearly lining up with the forces of light, thanks to Jannon's chance connection with and crush on the Google girl, it makes for a brilliantly fun read. At the same time, Sloan does weave in a few heady, thought-provoking notions of his own that make this novel something special.

A couple graphs about author Robin Sloan. 

Robin Sloan
Sloan had his own adventure while writing this story. Originally he self-published it as a short story through Kindle Direct Publishing. As people took an interest in his work, he sat back down with it and started writing a traditional print version, creating his own link between analog and digital.

First-time author Sloan grew up near Detroit, Michigan, and went to school at Michigan State, where he studied economics and co-founded a literary magazine called Oats. For ten years, he has worked for companies that have included Poynter, Current TV, and Twitter.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore Opens At 9.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Despite the lightness of this surreal story, Sloan is someone to add to any author watch list. There is an authenticity to his style that immediately relates and leaves you craving for more. There is something real here that awakens any inner geek without sacrificing much more of the sensible exterior of a 20-something who isn't sure what to do with himself.

The protagonist's name, incidentally, is borrowed from punch-cutter Jean Jannon, who perfected the font named after Garamond. There are a few more nods inside Sloan's novel Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore at Amazon too. You can also order the book from Barnes & Noble or download it for iBooks.

The audiobook available on iTunes is read by Ari Fliakos. Fliakos is perfectly cast for the first person narrative of Clay Jannon but also creates a convincing Penumbra. The unabridged narration of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, which is just over 300 pages, runs just shy of eight hours.
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