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Likely Stories: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Ramona McKeown
Jim McKeown in his home library

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore 

 A computer geek, a gnomic bookstore owner, and several friends go on an epic journey of discovery in this hard to close for the night adventure/mystery.

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I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

One of the delights of belonging to a book club comes from reading books which might never have come across my radar.  Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan has become the latest in a long list of wonderful reads suggested by my friends and colleagues.  After I had only reached page nine, I knew I would love this novel. 

Clay Jannon designs websites for a bagel company, but the great recession of 2008 intervenes, and the company goes under.  He has no luck finding a job, until one day he happens to pass Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, which has a “help wanted” sign in the window.  Nearing desperation, he enters to inquire about the job.  He immediately discovers that he has not entered an ordinary book store.  The shelves, which line the walls, go up 30 feet.  A tall, soft spoken, skinny man emerges, and asks, “What do you seek in these shelves?” (8).  He responds, “I am looking for a job” (9).  When Clay admits he has no bookstore experience, Mr. Penumbra says, “Tell me about a book you love.” // “it’s not one book, but a series.  It’s not the best writing and it’s probably too long and the ending is terrible, but I’ve read it three times, and I met my best friend because we were both obsessed with it back in sixth grade.” // “I love The Dragon-Song Chronicles” (9). 

Clay gets the job, and begins to understand exactly how unusual this bookstore really is.  First of all, he rarely has more than one customer a week, who never buys anything.  The customers return a large book, wrapped in brown paper, and ask for another.  Clay climbs the ladder, retrieves the book, which he wraps in brown paper, and the customer leaves with it. 

Mr. Penumbra has warned Clay not to look at the books, so this already provides enough mystery for a whole sack of detective stories.  To while away the night, Clay plays with his laptop and begins making a digital map of the store.  He discovers a peculiar pattern in the books returned and taken.  He meets a young woman, Kat, who works for Google, and Clay shares the details of the bookstore with her.

The mystery takes Clay, Kat, and Neel – Clay’s 6th grade best friend – to New York to the main library and headquarters of the company which owns Mr. Penumbra’s.  The library is presided over by strange men, known as readers, who dress in robes reminiscent of medieval monks.  This library contains books similar to the ones at Mr. Penumbra’s.

My only regret was reading the “Epilogue.”  It tied up all the characters in an all-too-perfect world.  I got the feeling Sloan might have closed the door on a sequel.  All this barely scratches the surface of the story, so I urge you to track down a copy of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, and immediately begin reading.  This intelligent, informative, funny, exciting, interesting, and most difficult to close for the night novel is a must read.  5 stars.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  You can read my book blog at  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and HAPPY READING!

Life-long voracious reader, Jim McKeown, is an English Instructor at McLennan Community College. His "Likely Stories" book review can be heard every Thursday on KWBU-FM! Reviews include fiction, biographies, poetry and non-fiction. Join us for Likely Stories every Thursday featured during Morning Edition and All Things Considered with encore airings Saturday and Sunday during Weekend Edition.