Friday, March 10, 2017

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore - Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore (Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, #1)There was something charming about this title that made buy it.  It also might have had something to do with the fact that there's this tumblr post that makes the rounds of the Nano Participants (formerly known as NaNoWriMo) group on Facebook that complains that such a thing as a 24-hour bookstore doesn't exist.  (To which my response is, it does.  It's called the Kindle store/iBooks/etc.)  But it sat on my shelf for a while, quietly glowing (yes, glowing; those books on the cover glow in the dark) until I found myself in need a book to fit my reading challenge category of "A book with an eccentric character."  It worked out perfectly, because pretty much all of the characters in this book are eccentric!

The main character is Clay, who ends up working at the eponymous bookstore after stumbling across it during a walk.  Clay doesn't actually aspire to work at a bookstore, but he's been unemployed for a while after the bagel shop for which he was a graphic designer/web designer/social media marketer/etc. shut down.  In the bookstore, he finds himself selling a few books every now and then to random incomers, but more often loaning out books to strange repeat customers who have membership cards, and the books that go out on loan seem to be full of gibberish or code.  With a few strange friends, like Neel the guy who sells software to animate boobs better, or Matt the prop designer who's building a city in their living room, or Kat the Google employee who dreams of finding a way to live forever, Clay sets out to figure out what's going on, leading to a bigger mystery than he intended to find.

This book is a love letter to both books and technology.  This was so refreshing.  Another meme that goes around the Facebook group periodically is how people who read on Kindles or other e-readers aren't "real" readers.  (Also popular is one about how people who dogear book pages to mark their place are monsters.  I dogear each page with relish now.)  But the characters in this book don't see it that way.  They have a bookstore, but they have e-readers.  They have books of code and are reverent toward "old knowledge" but savor the computing possibilities of Google, Hadoop, and so on.  I loved this.  Believe it or not, books and technology can live in harmony!  Gasp!  They're not actually hunting each other to extinction!  Amazing!  Even the book-worshipping members of the Unbroken Spine realize this with relatively little influencing.

The mystery is also a great sort of mystery.  The hunt proclaims to be around the search for the secret to immortality, but there's little belief on Clay's behalf that immortality is something that can be attained in the literal sense.  I liked this, because it means that the story didn't go off the rails.  There was a mystery, but the sleuthing involved a middle-grade trilogy about singing dragons and an examination of technologies that most of us wouldn't have dreamed of, and a mysterious internet pirate who inserted himself into pirated copies of the Harry Potter books.  It's all very charming and, yes, very eccentric, but it works.  There are discussions of museum archives and of typefaces and it's so much quirkiness that it all just works together.  I think if Sloan had gone just a little bit farther in any direction, it would have been too much, but he held back to just the right degree to make this an enjoyable read.

Is it a bit farfetched at times?  Yes.  It is.  And I found myself a little bit unsure of how seriously to take some of it.  Does Google actually run this way?  I don't know, it just seems so weird, and yet, it is Google... But I still enjoyed it, and I think Sloan held the back from going too far in the immortality direction, instead choosing to make things figurative.  A very enjoyable read, and I'm glad I finally got to it.

4 stars out of 5.

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