Book review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin SloanWith a name like Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, I didn’t know what to expect when I added the book to my 2014 reading list. It ended up there because it was highly recommended by Brad Feld, and I’ve had good luck with his past recommendations – favorites Avogadro Corp. and Wool are two that immediately come to mind. The book finally popped to the top of my stack this month, and it was time to dive into author Robin Sloan’s first book.

The story is about a young, 20-something software engineer living in San Francisco named Clay Jannon. He’s bounced around between a couple of particularly unsatisfying jobs and is in search of work. He stumbles across an eccentric bookstore looking for help and decides to take the offer. Little does he know that it will take him on a whirlwind adventure where he makes new friends, reconnects with old ones, explores the limits of technology, and pushes his comfort zone in search of the answers to everlasting life. Telling any more would give away the plot and ultimate reveal, so I’ll just leave it at that.

There were a few things that I really enjoyed about this book. The first was Sloan’s writing style. He writes the book in the first person from Clay Jannon’s perspective. He shares all of the character’s internal thoughts which makes for a very humorous story given all of the strange situations Clay finds himself in. In fact, I found myself smiling and laughing out loud many times during the book, which doesn’t happen often.

The second is the story telling. It starts out a touch slow as Sloan sets up the characters, but it picks up quickly. Sloan does a great job keeping you guessing as to where things are going, and he deftly connects together all of the pieces as the story unfolds. He also sprinkles in some interesting technology angles, particularly related to software development and big data visualization, which held my interest.

Finally, I loved the overall message, especially in this day and age where we’ve come to rely on our computers and our phones to seemingly do all of our thinking for us. Sloan shows that some of the best adventures in life aren’t the ones where we isolate ourselves and rely on technology to solve our problems. It’s the ones where we connect with, engage, and involve our friends to help us find the answers we are searching for. In other words, there’s more to life than what’s on the screens we spend all day looking at.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is the best book I’ve read from my 2014 reading list thus far. It clearly lands in my Must Reads, and I would highly recommend it. You will especially enjoy it if you’re involved in any kind of software development – there’s a few inside jokes you might not get otherwise.

And once again, I have to thank Brad Feld for sharing. His recommendation was spot on.