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Novel set in San Francisco and NYC (Bibliophile code-breakers)

2nd August 2013

Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore by Robin Sloan, novel set in San Francisco and NYC.

1782391193.01.ZTZZZZZZThe first thing that struck us about Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan is that it has such a bright and upbeat cover, it gets you smiling even on the greyest day. If you like a bit of magic realism, a bit of mystery and whimsy, humour and a peek into the internet world juxtaposed alongside the more traditional world of books, then this will be right up your street.

The pages are populated by a great mix of characters, who try and get to the heart of what is going on in Mr Penumbra’s Bookstore, all the while searching for the meaning of life and death, quite literally. They are in essence “white hat” hackers (the nice guys, as opposed to “black hat” hackers who are responsible for spam and trojans and just make everyone’s life a misery), who penetrate a set-up that is as old as printing itself.

And it all starts when Clay Jannon is looking for a job and comes across Mr Penumbra’s Bookstore, an out-of-the-way store with towering shelves of old books. This is where he comes to work as the night sales assistant – only there are very few and largely idiosyncratic visitors. Gradually he plucks up courage to peruse the shelves, yet he finds puzzling hieroglyphs bound within books. Where are the ISBNs? He summons the help of friends, some of whom are based at Google (the place), and the Googlers together embark on a mission to understand the notion of parallel processing and folio sizes. What exactly is the Festina Lente Company? What is the Codex Vitae, namely the puzzles for eternal life that Aldus Manutius passed on from way back….

Is it too glib, we wonder, to suggest that this is a Harry Potteresque mystery for readers who grew up with Hogwarts, with wonderful characters in a charmed world? Mr Penumbra and his crew are also wonderful characters, living in an off-beat web-world, with history and books.

This is a smoothly written novel, an author with a great gift for storytelling and imagination that can make the surreal seem real. The book is largely set in San Francisco, but the team of young bibliophiles-cum-hackers also pops up in New York City in hot pursuit of the quixotic Mr Penumbra, only to make even more discoveries. San Francisco is always in the background and clearly the author is fond of the city, his descriptions set the bookstore beautifully in context; and we will leave you with a short excerpt from the book, which demonstrates the beautiful quality of writing and observation:

“San Francisco is a good place for walks if your legs are strong. The city is a tiny square punctuated by steep hills and bounded on three sides by water, and as a result, there are surprise vistas everywhere. You’ll be walking along, minding your own business with a fistful of printout and suddenly the ground will fall away and you’ll see straight down to the bay, with the buildings lit up orange and pink along the way. San Francisco’s architectural style didn’t really make inroads anywhere else in the country, and even when you live here and you’re used to it, it lends the vistas a strangeness: all the tall narrow houses, the windows like eyes and teeth, the wedding-cake filigree. And looming behind it all, if you’re facing the right direction, you’ll see the rusty ghost of the Golden Gate Bridge”. excerpt from the book
Tina for the TripFiction Team
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