Books, Technology and a Secret Society Mystery
As a bookstore owner, I was intrigued with the title “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore,” a first novel by Michigan native Robin Sloan. Laid-off web designer, Clay Jannon, takes a job working the graveyard shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore. Right away, Clay realizes there is something mysterious about the bookstore. For one, there are hardly any customers. From time-to-time, a passerby will stop in and browse the slim selection of used books at the store’s front – hardly enough sales to keep the doors open. More common is a loyal group of odd customers who check out (not purchase) large tomes from the back of the store where the books pack floor-to-ceiling shelves 3-stories tall, accessible by a sliding ladder. Although warned by Mr. Penumbra not to peruse these special books, Clay succumbs to his curiosity and discovers they are all written in a strange code. Clay gathers a posse of friends to help in a mission of solving the riddle of what exactly is happening.
The characters are charming and resourceful: his roommate, a special effects artist; his best friend, a nerd turned multi-millionaire creator of “boob-simulation software;”; and, his new love interest, Kat, who works for Google. Together they solve the Founder’s Puzzle using highly advanced technology, especially with Kat’s access to Googles computing power. They realize more is at stake as the plot thickens when Mr. Penumbra disappears. Clay and friends track him to New York City and uncover the headquarters of a 500-year-old secret society called the Unbroken Spine.
Throughout the book, the author shows the power of technology matching wits with the old rigorous methods of the secret society. It also highlights the current debate central to us in the book business – eBooks vs. regular books and the benefits of each. One of the amusing aspects of the paperback edition of “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” is that the yellow cover glows in the dark –something lost with the eBook or audible editions.
Overall, I found the book delightful and entertaining – it is hard to put down. The main characters are all likable and the author has a sense of humor throughout. One of my favorite lines is Clay observation that “Kat bought a New York Times, but couldn’t figure out how to operate it, so now she’s fiddling with her phone.” The book will appeal to anyone who loves books, mysteries, secret societies, and technology.