Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Book Store by Robin Sloan


Sloan, Robin.  Mr. Penumbra’s 24 – Hour Bookstore.  Farrar, 2012.  $25, 304 pages.

Link to Author’s Website:

Links to Interviews with Author:

Links to Reviews Available Online:

Reader’s Annotation:

Ancient codes and secret societies are no match for Clay, his ragtag group of friends, and the powers of Google and modern technology.


Graphic designer Clay Jannon is down on his luck.  Recently let go from designing the website for a bagel shop, he starts a new position: night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore.  The weird thing about this bookstore, or rather its customers, is that no one ever buys the new books.  Instead they head to the back of the store and rent from the set of books which Mr. Penumbra has warned Clay not to read.  When his curiosity gets the best of him, Clay discovers that the books are actually written in code.  Soon Clay is applying modern technology and algorithms to solve these complex codes.  With the help of Kat, a Google employee, Neel, a technology entrepeneur, and others of the digital world, Clay sets out on a quest that pits him against the Unbroken Spine in search of the legacy left behind by sixteenth century printer Aldus Manutius.


Robin Sloan’s love of technology and literature are quite clear in this novel.  Thematically, it repeats the idea that technology complements literature and vice versa.  References to modern technology and the large role that it plays in Clay’s quest firmly sets this novel in contemporary times and makes it appealing to audiences of digital natives.  The language is also contemporary and easy to understand.  The descriptions and observations are both entertaining and witty.  The plot moves at an engaging pace, with the actions and events keeping the reader’s attention.  Rather than a novel of suspense or drama, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore reads more like a fantasy-buddy quest with a motley crew of likeable characters and the treasure of self-discovery as they search for another treasure all together.

Rating Scale:

  • Popularity:1 – Would sit on shelves unread; 2 – May see the light of day as an assigned reading; 3 – Interesting to readers, may need marketing; 4 – Very appealing read, ; 5 – Need multiple copies, because it would always be checked out!
  • Quality: 1 – How was this book ever published?; 2 – Poor literary quality; 3 – Average literary quality, nothing stands out as exceptional; 4 – Overall high quality literary quality, with certain areas of exceptional literary quality; 5 – Well-crafted of the highest literary quality
  • Popularity: 3
  • Quality: 3

Genre and Subgenre:  realistic fiction, adventure – technothriller, quest

Appeal Factors:  technology, questing, codes, secret society, Google

Readalike Titles or Authors:

  • The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  • Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Awards Won and Book Lists:

  • Alex Award
  • LA Times – Book Prize for First Fiction Finalist

Booktalking Ideas:

  • Description of the bookstore and Mr. Penumbra
  • Description of the suspicious bookstore clientele
  • Clay making progress in breaking the code

Book Discussion Questions or Ideas:

  • Do you agree or disagree with Gerritszoon’s message at the end about friendship?
  • What is the future of printed books?  Will they become obsolete like the tech at Google predicted?
  • How do technology and literature complement each other?  Or do they?

Why I Chose This:

The promise of nerdy pursuits, a supporting cast of quirky characters, a quest, Google, all encompassed in a 24 hour bookstore was what drew me to this book.  A 24-hour bookstore sounded like an interesting concept.  I wondered what would go on in a bookstore at the wee hours of the morning.  The group of misfits banding together to solve a problem (or puzzle/code in this case) was also appealing, as I enjoy unconventional characters and seeing how they fit together and find or make their own place in the world.


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