Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Book Store // So Very 2013

The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon away from life as a San Francisco web-design drone and into the aisles of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. But after a few days on the job, Clay discovers that the store is more curious than either its name or its gnomic owner might suggest. The customers are few, and they never seem to buy anything—instead, they “check out” large, obscure volumes from strange corners of the store. Suspicious, Clay engineers an analysis of the clientele’s behavior, seeking help from his variously talented friends. But when they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, they discover the bookstore’s secrets extend far beyond its walls.

First off, yes, this cover DOES glow in the dark. I tested it. How awesome is that?

This was, quite possibly, the first book that I picked up at the library for no other reason but that it seemed interesting, based on the title and inside blurb. I had heard nothing about this book, either in the blogosphere or from my friends.
It is very, very rare for me to risk valuable reading time on a book that could, quite possibly, be a waste of that time. There are so many excellent books to read that I don't want to spend a single minute reading something terrible. So I generally rely on the recommendations of friends who share my reading tastes, or the reviews of bloggers I like.

Mr. Penumbra's turned out to be NOT a waste of time, luckily. It was fun and funny, and I wouldn't mind reading more of Robin Sloan's books. He has a friendly, causal writing style that suits our first-person narrator, and you can clearly tell that Slows loves and knows books and bibliophiles.
His writing makes me laugh. Here's one of my favorites:
"So we'll use hundreds of machines to do it all at once. We'll use Hadoop."
Everybody uses it. Google, Facebook, the NSA. It's software - it breaks a big job into lots of tiny pieces and spreads them out to lots of different computers at the same time."
Hadoop! I love the sound of it. Kat Potente, you and I will have a son, and we will name him Hadoop, and he will be a great warrior, a king!

Mr. Penumbra's is written in a very modern style. What I mean by this is that there are countless references to events, brands, and pop culture that are undeniably NOW. The setting can only be 2013 USA - no question about it.
My personal favorite reference that Sloan makes is the wonderful xkcd webcomic (which I love) - but you can see how that definitely confines the book to a certain year.
Not that that is bad, of course. It's just that I haven't seen it to this extent in a contemporary book.
(Though that may not mean anything - I haven't read many contemporary books.)
(But I compare this to The Raven Boys, which, though clearly modern, is not defined as 201X.)

Mr. Penumbra deals very much with the tension between traditional pre-tech practices and more modern technology. The entire story is about this pull. Is it all right to solve an age old puzzle by using Google's powerful programs? Sloan manages to find a satisfactory middle ground, and even makes fun of the popular argument - "Paper or e-books?" He knows all the supporting points on both sides. :-)
It's interesting, because we get to see a full range - from people who entirely support technology and cannot deal with analog, to those who abhor anything that hints at high-tech.
Corvina, the head of a secret society and , in a sense, the villain of the story, is one of the latter. Kat, Clay's girlfriend, is the complete opposite:
Kat bought a New York Times but couldn't figure out how to operate it, so now she's fiddling with her phone.

And Clay, along with Penumbra himself, is somewhere in the middle.

I did some research, because I was wondering about some of the historical characters that pop up in Mr. Penumbra. Turns out some of them are real, and others are figments of Sloan's mind.

1. The software Hadoop is real.
2. Gerritszoon, the typeface that is widely mentioned in the book, is not real, and neither is Griffo Gerritszoon, its creator.
3. Aldus mantius, the Venetian publisher and printer, who was apparently friends with a Francisco Griffo, was a real person. (See link for #2)

The one thing that stuck out for me (in a bad way) was the abundance of easy solutions whenever Clay and Penumbra and Co. hit a roadblock. Everyone had connections and everyone had simple ways of getting out of problems. Need someone with money? Oh yeah, your friend from highschool is a rich computer programmer now. Need access to a huge, powerful computer system? Oh wait - your girlfriend works for Google and can get you immediate access.
It was a bit annoying, but easily overlookable, since they weren't deus ex machinas and didn't just pop up from nowhere.

So overall, a fun read!

Have you read Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore? What did you think?
And what is your opinion on grounding non-historical books in a specific year?


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