**disclaimer: i got this book through the GoodReads "First Reads" giveaway program. nonetheless, this is my true and honest opinion of the novel!**
clay jannon, the protagonist and narrator of the novel is a bright young art school graduate who takes a job at mr. penumbra's 24-hour bookstore after losing his job as a web designer, only to stumble upon the mysteries that the narrow building contains within its walls, and within the pages of what he calls "the way-back list". there's no acknowledgement printed in my ARC to my old friends mr. peabody
and his boy sherman here, yet i felt them hovering over it in their WABAC machine and the novel really felt at times like it was an extended, more complicated adventure of theirs. clay embarks (pun intended -- sorry, blame mr. peabody) on a quest to understand the secrets of the store, with the help of some very resourceful pals (including a hot nerd chick who works at google, and a roommate who builds models for ILM), and with clay's voice, in this quick and entertaining novel, the author robin sloan cleverly pays tribute to technology, to books, and to knowledge, and most of all, to friendship.
i enjoy books that contain puzzles. i adore intertextuality, and i thrill to find books that have other books within them, and as one might imagine, mr. penumbra's 24-hour bookstore contains multitudes. some of them you can pick up at your local library-- with pleasure i found hammett name-checked early on. first editions of borges, the king of fictional libraries and imaginary books are boosted; murakami also makes an appearance (and there are apparently more biographies on richard feynman than i was ever aware of), while other books like the codex vitae of aldus manutius
exist only in this novel that reminds us that the early printing press had a lot in common with the internet, that the technology might be different but the intent, to share knowledge and the human story, is in essence the same today as it was when the early publisher, whose life and legacy is fictionalized as part of the encrypted story in this charming, almost too contemporary novel, first brought key greek works like those of aristophanes, and herodotus to be printed on his press in pocket-sized editions for the masses in the fifteenth century.
in the same way a new reader relies on a dictionary to understand the meaning of unfamiliar words, i often referred to the wikipedia and the wider resources of the internet when reading penumbra, as there were many references to people and technologies mentioned with which i was unfamiliar, and wasn't certain were even real. manutius' pivotal friend griffo gerritszoon seems to be based on his real-life employee francesco griffo
and it was with great pleasure that i discovered that hadoop
and the mechanical turk
were real tools of the tech trade. sometimes, i'll admit, i worried that these references were too esoteric - i questioned an allusion to a bloomberg terminal
probably supposed to inform the description of another technology (which didn't help me at all because i had no idea what the bloody bloomberg terminal was either), but in general i found that sloan embedded his technical terminology with dexterity, folding it into his narrative with good context and understanding of the general audience that would receive his book. sometimes my suspension of disbelief was hard-pressed by the convenience of the resources at clay's disposal as he unravels the secrets of penumbra's store but ultimately i embraced them, as part of the puzzle that i was unpacking as a reader, a lover of knowledge, and if you will, a literary detective.