Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

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Genre: Realistic fiction/mystery

Winner 2013 Alex Award, the ALA’s award for “books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults.”

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was a good read that didn’t quite deliver in the end. It started out promising and did keep me reading for most of it – I love a good mystery, especially one that contains ancient knowledge hidden in dusty old books. I did read it over a much longer period that was optimal – life got in the way for a bit, and also my toddler kept hiding it on me – so that broke up the momentum a bit. Overall it ended up being a good read with a few things wrong.  I would not design a unit around this but it could be a fun outside read for the right sort of student…I would recommend maybe 9/10th grade or 11/12 for students who need an easier read.

Bookstore is the story of a twentysomething man who takes a job in a bookstore only to find out that strange things are afoot. The book ends up doing a great job of combining two stories – one of literature and one of technology. The protagonist – I totally forget his name Clay – is a likable and believable character. He’s a graphic artist who has fallen victim to the economy and taken this job to pay the bills, but ends up stumbling into a mystery rooted in a secret society and a mystery waiting to be solved via decoded literature. On the flip side, he also befriends and romances a woman working at Google, and they end up attempting to solve the mystery using modern-day technology. What I love about the protagonist Clay is his candor and loyalty. He’s not shy about mentioning his inner fantasy-loving dork and seems to deeply appreciate each of the odd characters with which he surrounds himself. And I love that this book so nicely marries its storylines. When you being reading, you’re sure you’ve read this story before – unsuspecting young man finds himself employed by a myserious old man, proprietor of a myserious bookstores full of mysterious books the young man must not read….strange characters who frantically retrieve said books…hints of a shadowy society bound to some onerous task…and then suddenly the characters are having lunch in the shiny, white, modern Google cafteteria or learning why the protagonist prefers a certain computer programming language to another.

The problems I had were:

1. The pop-culture (tech-culture?) references – how cool and high tech are these things going to seem in just a few years? The whole point of large parts of the book is how on the cutting edge of technology these techniques are.

2. I felt that the solution to the mystery really didn’t deliver

3. The solution to the mystery relied on a pretty big coincidence – the very person who is looking to solve it being familiar with a certain author to a minute degree.

Overall: Good read, good mystery…but meh.

Teaching resources:

Author’s site: http://www.robinsloan.com/

Publisher website: http://us.macmillan.com/mrpenumbras24hourbookstore/RobinSloan

About Google: http://www.google.com/about/company/

Robin Sloan on Morning Edition: http://www.npr.org/2012/10/09/162233599/mr-penumbra-bridges-the-digital-divide

NNDB Aldus Manutius Bio: http://www.nndb.com/people/554/000104242/

The Typographic Archives: http://www.typographia.org/

Not directly related, but right after I finished reading I heard this podcast about the Voynich Manuscript, a medieval document no one has been able to decrypt: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/stuff-you-missed-in-history/id283605519

Sample essay prompts based on past MCAS exam essay prompts:

Often in works of literature, a character earns the respect of his or her friends, family, or community. Select a character from Mr. Penubra’s 24-Hour Bookstore who earns the respect of his or her friends, family, or community. In a well-developed composition, identify the character; describe how the character earns the respect of his or her friends, family, or community; and explain how the character’s experience is important to the work as a whole.

Often in works of literature, a character encounters a situation that requires courage. Select a character from Mr. Penubra’s 24-Hour Bookstore who encounters a situation that requires courage. In a well-developed composition, identify the character, describe how the character reacts to the situation that requires courage, and explain how the character’s actions are important to the work as a whole.

Often in works of literature, a character stands up for something he or she believes in. Select a character from Mr. Penubra’s 24-Hour Bookstore who stands up for something he or she believes in. In a well-developed composition, identify the character, describe how the character stands up for something he or she believes in, and explain how the character’s actions relate to the work as a whole.

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