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Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore – Review by Chris, Staff blogger.

Festina Lente! This Latin phrase is something you will come to be familiar with if you read Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore. It translates roughly to “hasten slowly,” a contradictory expression that means to move quickly, but carefully – a great way to summarize this book with a plot that moves fast but is easy to digest, and manages to touch on a few different themes and genres along the way. Inside the world of Mr. Penumbra, protagonist Clay Jannon takes a part-time job at San Francisco’s strangest bookstore, and first hears the phrase used as a greeting between patrons of the store’s mysterious “wayback list.” The book centers on Clay and his mysterious boss, the eponymous Mr. Penumbra, then ‘hastens slowly’ to adventures with secret societies, giant computers, replica cities, and some very litigious owners of a font you’ll never find on Microsoft Word.

Clay Jannon is a bibliophile living in San Francisco. While most of his friends are in the tech industry in varying capacities ranging from programmer to CEO of a start-up company, Clay is chronically under-employed. After losing his job at a Bagel stand, he takes the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore. The front half looks like a typical indie bookstore, but the shelves in the back are filled with a large and mysterious collection of books entirely in code lent out to a small group of loyal regulars. Clay becomes intent on using modern tech to crack the code, and enlists his techie friends to help.

Clay’s plan sets up the plot, and also what I feel is the main theme of the book, which is the contrast between “old” vs. “new.” I really enjoyed the way that author Robin Sloan explored it with Mr. Penumbra and his bookstore representing old knowledge (referred to in the book as “O.K.”), and Kat Potente, love interest and Google employee extraordinaire representing modern thinking and technology. The author took the time to develop both of these supporting characters and explain that they’re passionate and intense about their worldview: Mr. Penumbra doesn’t own any technology created after permed hair was a thing, and Kat Potente can’t seem to figure out why anyone would want to read anything not displayed on a high-res monitor.  As the story goes on, the author makes sure to have his main character’s first-person narration poke lots of fun at the quirkiness of both characters, which I feel keeps the idea from getting stale and makes me like the characters more.

In fact, the first-person narration is another big selling point for me. It’s descriptive, and manages to fit a lot of information into a plot that moves fairly quickly. It’s also very tongue-in-cheek: even in the more intense moments of the plot, the protagonist is funny and relatable. He reacts to these extraordinary events the way that I would (i.e. with disbelief and a healthy dose of sarcasm), which I felt made it easier for me to follow along as the plot touched on mystery, elements of sci-fi and a romantic side plot. And as said above, it does move fairly quickly for a book of 288 pages –hastens slowly, you might say - and comes to a satisfying conclusion that I won’t spoil for you.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24  hour bookstore is available through our discover catalogue. It’s a great read and I’d highly recommend you check it out!


Staff Blogger


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