Tuesday, 31 December 2013

#CBR5 Book 154. "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore" by Robin Sloan

Page count: 305 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Having lost his job as a web developer due to the recession, Clay Jannon finds a new job as the night clerk in the titular bookstore, belonging to the mysterious Mr. Penumbra. Not that he sells all that many books. As well as the normal shelves, with its somewhat eclectic selection of novels and non fiction, there is what Clay calls the "wayback" section of the store, huge shelves of unique volumes, not to be found in any search engine, a sort of strange lending library for the odd individuals who show up with a laminated cards, returning a volume and fetching another at random intervals. Clay is asked to keep a log, describing the appearance of each of the customers and the state of mind each new customer was in when they come to swap a book.

Clay starts using his web developer skills to make a 3D-model of the store and the "wayback" section on his computer, trying to see if there's any pattern, rhyme or reason to the strange regulars and their lending patterns. He also works on trying to lure new customers to the store, using all the tools available to him in social media to advertise its location. Once he meets Kat, a young lady working at Google, his plans to map the mysterious patterns of Mr. Penumbra's store really take off, and soon he and his friends are involved in a mysterious quest involving a global conspiracy, a secret organisation, code breaking, data visualisation on a massive scale and possibly the secret to eternal life.

As someone who loves books, a book about a mysterious book store and a mystery surrounding reading sounded pretty enticing, but like so many other books, this ended up on my TBR shelf and languished there for a long time. It ended up being a very different book from what I was expecting, and I can see why it's not everyone's cup of tea, as it's very clever in slightly knowing and self referential way, combining the story of an ancient secret society trying to decode books with digitalisation, e-readers and Twitter. There are so many geeky references here, to role playing and gaming and various types of programming and web developing. Some might describe is as a "Hipster quest narrative", and they wouldn't be too far off the mark.

I think the book may have gotten a bit too clever for its own good in places, and the conclusion of the story doesn't come together as well as it began. I'm not sure I believe certain of the developments the story took, and that some of the characters got a bit lost in the main thrust of the excitement of the denouement. Still, it's a fun book, with a rather unusual premise, and I enjoyed reading it.

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