Novel set in Bay Area casts inscrutable shadow

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Reading “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” by Robin Sloan (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012) is like going to an old-fashioned county fair – it’s a lot of fun and there are many surprises along the way. To add to the enjoyment, the book is set in San Francisco and Mountain View, with a stop along the way in New York City.

The main character, Clay Jannon, an unemployed Web designer, is a likable young man who doesn’t seem to possess many marketable skills but is very resourceful. He manages to find a job as night clerk at Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore.

There is a mystery central to the basic plot of what is really going on inside this strange book shop. But once we unveil the answer to that question, more surprises remain in store (no pun intended).

It is no surprise that this book made the list of Bay Area Best-Sellers last month, given the local settings and rollicking pace.

Jannon has two important resources: his own tenacity and drive in pursuit of the truth and his cadre of friends, who assist him by providing money, technological savvy and important contacts.

Initially intrigued by discovering that the bookstore has very few customers and strange, unreadable books, Jannon employs the powerful computer technology at Google headquarters to unlock some of these enigmas. Solving the first puzzle leads to more puzzles, and he discovers that technology alone will not resolve every challenge.

It was a bonus to discover that Sloan mentioned several authors whose books I also enjoy, such as J.R.R. Tolkien, John Steinbeck, Dashiell Hammett and Walter Isaacson. His characters are equally familiar with Internet technologies, such as Facebook groups, Google ads and Hacker News (a social news website about computer hacking and startup companies) current in Silicon Valley.

Sloan’s best writing comes at the end of the book: “There is no immortality that is not built on friendship and work done with care. … Your life must be an open city, with all sorts of ways to wander in.”

If you wander into this book, you won’t be disappointed.

Leslie Ashmore, a longtime Mountain View resident, belongs to two book clubs.

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