Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Mr. Penumbra's 24 hour book store / Robin Sloan

5 out of 5 stars
The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon away from life as a San Francisco web-design drone and into the aisles of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. But after a few days on the job, Clay discovers that the store is more curious than either its name or its gnomic owner might suggest. The customers are few, and they never seem to buy anything—instead, they “check out” large, obscure volumes from strange corners of the store. Suspicious, Clay engineers an analysis of the clientele’s behavior, seeking help from his variously talented friends. But when they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, they discover the bookstore’s secrets extend far beyond its walls. Rendered with irresistible brio and dazzling intelligence, Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is exactly what it sounds like: an establishment you have to enter and will never want to leave.

This is one of the most enchanting books that I have read in a long time. It is a love letter to all the things that I love: books, libraries, bookshops, museums, good friends, the internet, and geekdom. Working, as I do, in the library and museum worlds, it seemed somehow tailor-made for me.

The author has a real way with words. Describing the home of one character: “Her home is the burrow of a bibliophile hobbit -- low-ceilinged, close-walled, and brimming over with books.” In that one sentence, you know exactly what her environment looks like. When Clay begins to comprehend the secret-society nature of the store, he calls it “Scientology for elderly scholars.” Another little aside tells the reader, “If you think this is amazing, you are over 30.” They are turns of phrase which bring a smile to your face and perhaps a little snort of laughter. Witty, without making it difficult to read the book in public. I read it on a plane and then handed it to my vacation roommate, who divided it up into small chunks to prevent herself from reading it too fast. We both agreed that it was absolutely charming and that we hope to read more from Robin Sloan.

I also adored the nature of the friendships—the friend from 6th grade, the employer become friend, the girlfriend, and many other people acquired along the way. In this age of thousands of Facebook "friends" and the anonymity of the internet, I think we often forget about the warmth of real friendship, of gathering our favourite people in a room and appreciating their talents.

I also loved the fictional technology presented in Penumbra. As a sometimes-toiler in museum databases, I can tell you that I for one would welcome Sloan’s Accession Table device. When someone invents it, I will gladly sign up for training (although I’m not sure that many museums would be able to afford it). Having taught school programs on a volunteer basis for many years, I also greatly appreciated the school class at the Knitting Museum—there’s more truth in his depiction than he may even know! And I desperately want to visit the long-term storage facility in Nevada—if only such a place existed.

Add to all those wonderful elements the multiple allusions to so many aspects of the geek world—references to Star Trek, to Batman, to role-playing games, so many things. They were the icing on a very good cake.

Highly recommended. Please, Mr. Sloan, may I have some more?

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