Wednesday, 29 January 2014

'Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore' by Robin Sloan

It’s a funny thing about reading this novel, but towards the end I started to realise that it contained echoes of other books I’ve been reading this month. There’s the classic children’s fantasy novel series that the young hipster characters revere and carry with them into adult life (Fan Girl). There’s the young characters themselves and their excruciating brightness and cleverness, and their preoccupation with the way books will outlive us (Fault in Our Stars). And there’s also the mysterious fellowship of monks holed up in a mysterious Sanctus Sanctorum, getting up to murky business and keeping an age-old secret that they themselves don’t fully understand (Sanctus).

As you know, I move zig-zag-wise through my reading, so little ripples of meaning and ideas ought to be more or less accidental, or the product of my own overactive imagination. Plus, in Mr Penumbra’s case, it was a book recommendation from Stuart, and not a choice that I made via my own intuition.

So, I’m not sure what it means – or portends! – other than the contemporary novel is obsessing about things like electronic media, textuality as something you get embroiled in as an adventure, magical fantasy epics and secrets guarded by corrupt and ancient cults.

I liked ‘Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookshop’ a great deal. I like most of all the action that takes place in the tall, narrow bookshop in San Francisco – from the narrator’s early nightshifts, when he decides something nefarious to do with secret codes is going on, right up until the ending, when he gives a power-point presentation to all the characters to explain everything he has learned. There are some wonderful characters (usually the shady ones – I wasn’t so keen on some of the show-off prodigies who came centre stage) and some lovely twists to do with things like computer scanners made out of flat-pack cardboard, complete and unabridged audiobooks read by the author, museums for knitted pullovers and ubiquitous fonts.

Everything in this novel is hiding another secret inside itself, and I liked the journey our hapless-stroke-brilliant narrator makes on his way to uncovering an ultimately (…spoilers) rather modest and friendly meaning to it all.

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