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Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

How could any reader resist this book title – the idea of a 24 hour bookstore is better than eating at an all-night diner.  With a mix of fantasy and today’s world of digital magic, Robin Sloan creates an adventure of rivals – electronic books vs bound pages –  in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

Out of work computer geek, Clay Jannon,  finds a new job on the night shift of a strange indie bookstore in San Francisco.  Few customers want the books on display by Haruki Murakami, Neal Stephenson, and Dashiell Hammet; the attraction for his night visitors is the collection high on the dusty shelves in the back.  Curious to understand the lure of these old books, Jannon digitally scans the log book and cracks a code that uncovers a secret society of readers.  With the help of a new girlfriend who works for Google,  Jannon follows the book store manager, Ajax Penumbra, to the headquarters of the Unbroken Spine group on Fifth Avenue in New York City – and starts the adventurous quest for a secret 15th century message that may be the key to immortality.

Although the ingredients of long black robes, secret staircases behind a bookcase, coded messages hidden in books,  have the flavor of a mysterious fantasy, Sloan cleverly inserts the modern adult world and ancient artefacts into the dilemma.  Google plays a key role, along with experts in simulation, video technology and professional hacking.  You will be googling “The Dragon-Song Chronicles” and  Gerritszoon font to see if they are real.  A suspenseful moment has all the modern technology available working together to crack the code.  Google does not yet have the answer to eternal life, but Jannon finds the solution reveals itself unexpectedly…

“There is no immortality that is not built on friendship and work done with care.”

Depends on how you define immortality…Sloan’s solution happily creates a balance of the new and the old that will please readers who like the smell of new book pages as well as the convenience of the Kindle.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a fun light read – all those familiar landmarks in San Francisco and New York City could lead you to believe that the adventure is real (I plan to look for the building across from Central Park), and the search for the puzzle pieces will keep you reading.

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