The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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February 1, 2013

'Bookstore' shows there is plenty of magic in books

JOPLIN, Mo. — There's magic in books.

It's the kind of magic that can pull you into a story so completely that the real world fades, and you realize that not only have you lost track of time as you tear through the book's pages, but you wouldn't want that time back for anything.

And so it is with Robin Sloan's 2012 novel "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore."

A slim, fast-paced read, the book is nevertheless able to create a world designed to grab readers by the lapels and yank them inside.

Clay Jannon is a San Francisco web developer without a job, and he's finding no help in browsing the help-wanted ads.

Passing a hole-in-the-wall 24-hour bookstore, he spies at "help wanted" sign and inquires about the job. The store is run by the enigmatic Ajax Penumbra, a wizened old man who stocks a few titles that might qualify as best-sellers but primarily caters to a clientele who are mainly interested in the strange books that fill shelves that are three stories high.

Hired on for the overnight shift, Penumbra gives Clay three simple rules to follow:

"One: You must always be here from ten p.m. to six a.m. exactly. You must not be late. You cannot leave early. Two: You may not browse, read, or otherwise inspect the shelved volumes ... (and third) You must keep precise records of all transactions. The time. The customer's appearance. His state of mind. How he asks for the book. How he receives it ... and so on."

The reader immediately knows one thing: Clay's going to open one of these strange tomes, written by authors he's never heard of and comprised entirely of jumbled letters.

To say much about the plot would be a disservice, because it's a book about discovery -- think of it as a lighthearted "Da Vinci Code" for bibliophiles. But I will say that Clay's adventure takes him from one coast to the other; into the world of a secret society known as the Unbroken Spine; and straight to the heart of the Google brain trust.

Sloan has created a world that will appeal to a wide cross section of readers who have an interest in old books, new technology, computer programming, code breaking, role playing, typefaces, fantasy literature and characters who wear their eccentricities on their sleeve.

It would be easy for an author to take such a mixture and get lost in the weeds, but Sloan has a deft touch with the characters and situations. Even someone with little knowledge or interest in some of the above will find themselves captivated by his blend of old knowledge preserved in the musty pages of ancient texts and the dazzling possibilities of the digital age.

Ultimately, Clay's adventure becomes the reader's as well. At its heart, "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore" is all about the magic that happens when someone picks up "the right book exactly, at exactly the right time."

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