The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon out of his life as a San Francisco Web-design drone—and serendipity, sheer curiosity, and the ability to climb a ladder like a monkey has landed him a new gig working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. But after just a few days on the job, Clay begins to realize that this store is even more curious than the name suggests. There are only a few customers, but they come in repeatedly and never seem to actually buy anything, instead “checking out” impossibly obscure volumes from strange corners of the store, all according to some elaborate, long-standing arrangement with the gnomic Mr. Penumbra. The store must be a front for something larger, Clay concludes, and soon he’s embarked on a complex analysis of the customers’ behavior and roped his friends into helping to figure out just what’s going on. But once they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, it turns out the secrets extend far outside the walls of the bookstore.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is exactly what it sounds like: an establishment you have to enter and will never want to leave, a modern-day cabinet of wonders ready to give a jolt of energy to every curious reader, no matter the time of day.
Confession: I work in a bookstore. It’s not a used bookstore, but rather a beautifully appointed established independent bookstore, with lots of lovely new titles and a series of wonderful patrons who are literate, interesting and interested in books of all kinds. As a result, I felt an immediate kinship with Clay as he began to notice and to get to know the regulars at Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore. These people begin to become familiar to you, and you can’t help but have a vested interest in finding something for them that they will like. Like Clay, I wonder about the back stories of my readers; unlike Clay, I’ve never gone to his depths to find out. This is a valentine for people who love books, and it is unapologetic in its being such.
When attempting to describe the book during a Twitter discussion with @SavvyReader and @HCCFrenzy, I finally came up with the description that it was like a mix of the DaVinci Code and Douglas Copeland’s J-Pod, with a dash of Lord of the Rings. They countered with “It’s like Shadow of the Wind if written by Nick Hornby” – and the thing is, we’re both right. Clearly, this is a unique read.
Luckily for the reader, the story is anchored by some very memorable characters. Clay is our narrator, and the force by which we learn everything about the goings-on in the store and the events that follow. Clay brings the human element to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and in such, starts a process that leads the characters on a wild chase across the country and into the history of words itself. Mr. Penumbra is revealed to be a likeable and intelligent man who has quietly – and not so quietly – devoted his life to a cause he believes in with all his heart. Even the supporting characters Kat, Neel, Mat, Edgar, Corvina and the others are all interesting and vivid beings in their own right. You can’t help but be drawn into the adventure, and to hold your breath as they begin the next stage of each journey. Each person has their own unique observations about life and the role of books within that observation; it was fascinating to compare the views of Kat, the Google devotee, who believed in the power of all-encompassing knowledge at your fingertips with those of Mr. Penumbra, who believed in knowledge and reading as a personal journey, unique to the individual.
I was entranced as well by the exploration of the different forms of books, and of the relationships each character had to certain stories. Clay and his friend Neel bonded early and fervently over the mythical writings of the Dragon-Song Chronicles – a cross of LOTR and Game of Thrones, from the sounds of it – while Mr. Penumbra explores the delights of various e-readers all the while advocating for the paper-printed word. At one point, Clay is convinced to explore other versions of the book he loves so much:
“I’ve never listened to an audiobook before, and I have to say, it’s a totally different experience. When you read a book, the story definitely happens inside your head. When you listen, it seems to happen in a little cloud all around it, like a fuzzy knit cap pulled down over your eyes.”
There’s also a lot of humour in this book. Sloan has some pretty sly commentary to deliver about the all-encompassing power of Google, just as he takes aim on the ‘one true religion’ of old-school fanaticism. I must confess that I did google the Gerritszoon font, just to see if it’s real (not telling what I found!).
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore appears on the surface to be a book about books. However, don’t be diverted – it is a quest tale, a personal exploration of reading beliefs and much, much more. It deserves your attention as you follow the characters on their journey towards the ultimate codex vitae … and the answers they find along the way just might just surprise you.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is published in Canada by HarperCollins, and is available from Indigo, Amazon and your friendly independent bookseller. ISBN 9781443415781, 256 pages.