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Books about books are in a literary sub-genre of their own. But with paper rapidly becoming retro are they likely to face obsolescence too? Not if US writer Robin Sloan has anything to do with it. His captivating new novel Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore fuses the romance of musty tomes with the brave, new digital world and does it brilliantly.
Clay Jannon is a young San Francisco web designer left jobless by the recession. He fills his time looking for work and reading geeky novels on his laptop. Then he spots a help wanted sign in the window of a 24-hour second-hand bookshop. This is an extraordinary place, narrow and high, with three storeys of books and shelves fading into the shadows.
The store’s aged custodian, Mr Penumbra, hires him as the night clerk and very quickly Clay realises there is something curious about the place. Its inventory is eclectic and there are very few customers and hardly any book sales. There is also something remarkably odd about the volumes that line the tall, laddered shelves at the back of the shop. Clay dubs these the “waybacklist” and wonders why he can’t find their titles anywhere on Google and is forbidden to read or even browse through them. Most mysterious of all are the scholarly set of customers who come to borrow these books and the detailed records Mr Penumbra requires him to keep about them
Clay needs his job so at first doesn’t ask too many questions but inevitably his curiosity gets the better of him. Assisted by his friends – who are either extremely successful or very eccentric – and by a hot girl called Kat Potente who works for Google and dreams of immortality, he embarks on a quest to solve the mystery that lies behind the bookstore and its customers. This involves cracking codes and uncovering a secret sect, and it takes them to the forefront of what technology can offer as well as right to the heart of a centuries old mystery.
It’s a quirky concept, skilfully executed for the most part, and if the solution to the puzzle falls bit flat then you can forgive Sloan because the rest of it fizzes along so beautifully.
This is his first novel and was developed from a short story that was in turn inspired by a tweet. It is filled with ideas and stuff geeks will love – from typography to coded novels. For the non-geeks amongst us it captures all the nostalgia of dusty, old bookshops stuffed with treasures. Sloan seem equally passionate about computers and books, and this debut novel is a celebration of both.
Good storytelling, original ideas, fluent writing and likeable characters all add up to a fun, upbeat story, that’s a little self-consciously clever but amusing enough to make up for it. Definitely one of the more enjoyable reads I’ve had this year.