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Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore    by Robin Sloan order for
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
by Robin Sloan
Order:  USA  Can
Picador, 2013 (2012)
Hardcover, Softcover, CD, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore centers on Clay Jannon, a young man with almost a year's experience designing the website of a small, new bagel company in San Francisco. He found this job right after art school, but the company failed during the great recession, and now he's losing hope of finding another job in his field. As he tells us, 'Another year at NewBagel and I would have been in good shape, but I hadn't lasted long enough to build my portfolio, or even get particularly good at anything ... But I kept at it with the help-wanted ads. My standards were sliding swiftly. At first I had insisted I would only work at a company with a mission I believed in. Then I thought maybe it would be fine as long as I was learning something new. After that I decided it just couldn't be evil. Now I was carefully delineating my personal definition of evil.'

One of his strategies is to print out copies of help-wanted ads and take a long walk, reading the ads as he goes along and throwing out the ones that require too much experience. As he walks, he looks for HELP WANTED signs in windows, and one day he sees one in Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour bookstore. He's pretty sure the bookstore is a front for something shady because of the 24-hour aspect and the fact that 'It was on Broadway, in a euphemistic part of town. My help-wanted hike had taken me far from home; the place next door was called Booty's and it had a sign with neon legs that crossed and uncrossed.' But he's desperate and the extremely old man who runs the store hires him on the spot, based apparently on the fact that his favorite book is The Dragon-Song Chronicles.

Clay also has to be willing to climb a ladder reaching up three stories to retrieve books for strange nocturnal customers and then record every detail of these exchanges in a logbook. These customers don't pay for these special books, and paying customers seldom come to buy the books that are closer to ground level. Extremely curious about these books from the upper shelves, he discovers that they are all written in code. He also wonders how the store can stay in business when so few books are actually sold.

As the plot heats up, Clay meets a young woman who works at Google and they attempt to solve the code and mystery of the book store. His friends, including his roommate and a now-wealthy childhood friend with whom he remains close, get involved in the search for answers. They are joined by Mr. Penumbra when he discovers what Clay has been up to. Rather than lose his job, Clay is encouraged and assisted by Mr. Penumbra, who is apparently equally anxious to use computers and new technology to solve a mystery that his clandestine group has been trying to resolve with the code books for centuries.

The book is a combination of nonlethal detective story and complex computer game with a surprisingly satisfying ending. Although the young people at the heart of the search deal with computer knowledge far above my abilities, I never had any trouble keeping up with them as they romped through various attempts to solve the code. The descriptions of San Francisco and the Google complex nearby in Silicon Valley are equally interesting and fun to read. Robin Sloan has a wonderful ability to make his characters come alive, and the text is frequently witty as well as being good writing. I loved this book and the fact that for all the reliance on computers and other new technical gadgets, paper books are still important and treasured by the characters.

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