While on Amazon I came across Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. I read the short description of the book and I was instantly hooked when the book was revealed to be set in San Francisco. As a native San Franciscan, I’m always interested in how an author or artist decides to depict the city. I was about to pre-purchase the electronic version of the book when I was informed the jacket of the book was GLOW-IN-THE-DARK!! I probably shelled out an extra $10 for this added bonus, but glow-in-the-dark – like your low-top Chucks – does not go out of style.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore centers on underemployed protagonist Clay Jannon and his journey to unlocking the Founder’s Puzzle. Clay is employed at a 24-hour bookstore managed by the well-natured Mr. Penumbra, but his bookstore is no ordinary bookstore. The two-leveled store is stocked with peculiar books (referred to as the Waybacklist) that to the ordinary eye appear to be written in code. The patrons of the bookstore are equally peculiar as they never purchase, but rather borrow books from the Waybacklist. When they arrive, Clay has to describe in careful detail their manner and dress while in the store. Those who borrow from the Waybacklist are a part of special book club that seeks to uncover the Founder’s Puzzle. Each of the books in the Waybacklist is written by a former member of the club who has successfully uncovered the Puzzle. It is their codex vitale, or code of life.
The logbook in which Clay details the patrons catches his curiosity, so he decides to take an earlier edition of the book home to scan. With the help of his best friend, the rich, young and well-connected Neel; the intelligent, but cute Google employee Kat; and his artsy, yet resourceful roommate Mat, Clay works to uncover the Founder’s Puzzle. As Clay’s adventure takes him from the technological landscape of the Bay Area to the undergrounds of New York and back, he discovers or perhaps rediscovers his passion and what is truly important in this life.
As I mentioned above, I loved the book mainly because I found Sloan’s depiction of the setting of San Francisco/Bay Area and New York to be incredibly rich in detail. I thought he captured the spirit of both cities with justice. His characters were relatable, especially for those who are in the transition period of their life of establishing a career for themselves. Clay in particular lost his job at a start-up doing graphic design and was relegated to working at a bookstore, albeit a wonderfully mysterious one. He’s like so many young adults who are “underemployed.” And the depiction of friendship in the book was wonderfully crafted. I found myself reminiscing about memories I share with my very best friend and the things we geeked out to and still do (I always thought Super Nintendo was the best gaming system). I also thought the title was appropriate as there must be some mystery surrounding a 24-hour bookstore, as well as the book club associated with it. Overall, I thought everything in this book was just a well-packaged puzzle for me.
Editor: Candice Leung