Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore [NOOK Book]


A gleeful and exhilarating tale of global conspiracy, complex code-breaking, high-tech data visualization, young love, rollicking adventure, and the secret to eternal life—mostly set in a hole-in-the-wall San Francisco bookstore

The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon out of his life as a San Francisco Web-design drone—and serendipity, sheer curiosity, and the ability to climb a ladder like a monkey has landed him a new gig working the ...

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Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

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A gleeful and exhilarating tale of global conspiracy, complex code-breaking, high-tech data visualization, young love, rollicking adventure, and the secret to eternal life—mostly set in a hole-in-the-wall San Francisco bookstore

The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon out of his life as a San Francisco Web-design drone—and serendipity, sheer curiosity, and the ability to climb a ladder like a monkey has landed him a new gig working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. But after just a few days on the job, Clay begins to realize that this store is even more curious than the name suggests. There are only a few customers, but they come in repeatedly and never seem to actually buy anything, instead “checking out” impossibly obscure volumes from strange corners of the store, all according to some elaborate, long-standing arrangement with the gnomic Mr. Penumbra. The store must be a front for something larger, Clay concludes, and soon he’s embarked on a complex analysis of the customers’ behavior and roped his friends into helping to figure out just what’s going on. But once they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, it turns out the secrets extend far outside the walls of the bookstore.

With irresistible brio and dazzling intelligence, Robin Sloan has crafted a literary adventure story for the twenty-first century, evoking both the fairy-tale charm of Haruki Murakami and the enthusiastic novel-of-ideas wizardry of Neal Stephenson or a young Umberto Eco, but with a unique and feisty sensibility that’s rare to the world of literary fiction. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is exactly what it sounds like: an establishment you have to enter and will never want to leave, a modern-day cabinet of wonders ready to give a jolt of energy to every curious reader, no matter the time of day.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

The Great Recession of 2008 plunked web designer Clay Jannon down into the strange, shelf-lined world of Mr. Penumbra's San Francisco 24-hour bookstore. It doesn't take the new night clerk long to realize that its few customers are even weirder than the concept of a bookshop that never closes: They never buy anything, but they keep busy during their frequent visits perusing its obscure volumes, but to what purpose? Robin Sloan's charming new novel has already been likened to works by Umberto Eco, Haruki Murakami, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and J.R.R. Tolkien. Even without those comparisons, a bountiful joy for bibliophiles and web surfers. Now in trade paperback and NOOK Book.

Library Journal
Suddenly jobless in the current recession, San Francisco web designer Clay Jannon starts working at the eponymous bookstore, whose few (but regular) customers seem merely to shuffle over to a dark corner and read obscure texts. Billed as a literary adventure; that Sloan says he splits his time between San Francisco and the Internet suggests a potential for edgy whimsy.
The New York Times
…[a] slyly arch novel about technology and its discontents…The culture clash at work here—Google aces wielding the full, computer-assisted strength of their collective brainpower, one scholar fiddling with a quaint astrolabe—has a topicality that works to this novel's advantage. Mr. Sloan fills his book with wittily-drawn prodigies, then makes them wonder how they can best use their new-tech talents.
—Janet Maslin
The New York Times Book Review
…dexterously tackles the intersection between old technologies and new with a novel that is part love letter to books, part technological meditation, part thrilling adventure, part requiem…Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is eminently enjoyable, full of warmth and intelligence. Sloan balances a strong plot with philosophical questions about technology and books and the power both contain. The prose maintains an engaging pace as Clay, Mr. Penumbra and the quirky constellation of people around them try to determine what matters more—the solution to a problem or how that solution is achieved.
—Roxane Gay
From the Publisher
“Delightful.” —Graham Joyce, The Washington Post

“An irresistible page-turning novel.” —Newsweek

“One of the most thoughtful and fun reading experiences you’re likely to have this year . . . extremely charismatic . . . deeply funny . . . there’s so much largehearted magic in this book . . . Sloan is remarkably gifted and has an obviously deep affection for both literature and technology.” —Michael Schaub, NPR Books

 “A jaunty, surprisingly old-fashioned fantasy about the places where old and new ways of accessing knowledge meet . . . [Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore] cleverly uses the technological age in the service of its fantasy . . . Sloan’s ultimate answer to the mystery of what keeps people solving Penumbra’s puzzle is worth turning pages to find out.” —Tess Taylor, San Francisco Chronicle

“[A] winning literary adventure . . . Sloan grounds his jigsawlike plot with Big Ideas about the quest for permanence in the digital age.” —Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly

 “Fantastic . . . I loved diving into the world that Sloan created, both the high-tech fantasyland of Google and the ancient analog society. It’s packed full of geeky allusions and wonderful characters, and is a celebration of books, whether they’re made of dead trees or digits.” —Jonathan H. Liu, Wired, GeekDad

“Robin Sloan cleverly combines the antiquated world of bibliophilia with the pulsating age of digital technology, finding curiosity and joy in both. He makes bits and bytes appear beautiful . . . The rebels’ journey to crack the code—grappling with an ancient cult, using secret passwords and hidden doorways—will excite anyone’s inner child. But this is no fantasy yarn. Mr. Sloan tethers his story to a weird reality, striking a comical balance between eccentric and normal . . . The pages swell with Mr. Sloan’s nerdy affection and youthful enthusiasm for both tangible books and new media. Clay’s chatty narration maintains the pace and Mr. Sloan injects dry wit and comedic timing suited to his geeky everyman . . . A clever and whimsical tale with a big heart.” —The Economist

 “Man, is this book fun—especially for any book nerd who isn’t in denial about living in the modern age. If you love physical books (the smell! The feel!) but wouldn’t give up your iPhone for any reason, if you like puzzles and geeky allusions and bookish cults and quests, then this book is for you. It also glows in the dark.” —Emily Temple, Flavorpill

“What makes Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore so impressive is Sloan’s great gift for storytelling and his cast of brilliant, eccentric characters. Think of this novel as part Haruki Murakami, part Dan Brown and part Joseph Cornell: a surreal adventure, an existential detective story and a cabinet of wonders at which to marvel.” —Carmela Ciuraru, Newsday

 “Beguiling . . . The plot is as tight as nesting boxes, or whatever their digital equivalent . . . Sly and infectious.” —Karen R. Long, The Cleveland Plain Dealer 

“Sloan isn’t just exploring new ideas, but laying the groundwork for a new genre of literature. While the influence of Neal Stephenson and William Gibson is present, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is something all its own: a technocratic adventure where every riddle and puzzle is solved with very real gadgets, a humanizing reflection on technology that evokes the tone of a fairy tale, a brisk and brainy story imbued with such confidence that it will leave you with nothing but excitement about the things to come.” —Kevin Nguyen, Grantland 

 “In a time when actual books are filling up tag-sale dollar boxes, along with VHS tapes and old beepers, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore reminds us that there is an intimate, adventurous joy in the palpable papery things called novels, and in the warm little secret societies we used to call ‘bookstores.’ Robin Sloan’s novel is delightfully funny, provocative, deft, and even thrilling. And for reasons more than just nostalgia, I could not stop turning these actual pages.” —John Hodgman

“The love child of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus and Neal Stephenson’s Reamde, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a hugely enjoyable story of friendship, living, and the lure of the mysterious. It’s a good-hearted, optimistic book about the meeting of modern technology and medieval mystery, a tonal road map to a positive relationship between the old world and the new. It’s a book that gets it. Plus, you know: cryptographic cults, vertical bookshops, hot geeks, theft, and the pursuit of immortality. I loved it. And yes, I too would freeze my head.” —Nick Harkaway

 “Robin Sloan is a skilled architect, and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is an ingeniously designed space, full of mysteries and codes. A clever, entertaining story that also manages to be a thought-provoking meditation on progress, information and technology. Full of intelligence and humor.” —Charles Yu 

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a real tour de force, a beautiful fable that is given legs by the author’s bravado use of the real (Google is in there, for instance, the actual campus) to sell us on a shadow world of the unreal and the speculative. Robin Sloan comes across as so bighearted, so in love with the world—the ancient world, the contemporary world—so in love with love, in love with friendship, in love with the idea that our technical abilities can serve as conduits for beauty, that the reader is swept along by his enthusiasm. It’s a lot of fun—but it’s also a powerful reading experience with a wonderful undeniability.” —George Saunders, in Blip Magazine

Library Journal
Sloan's first novel features many weighty themes, including immortality and the concept of the singularity, while asking what happens when technological growth becomes exponential and computers self-aware. Protagonist Clay Jannon is a dotcom-bust survivor who finds a job in a mysterious San Francisco bookstore run by Ajax Penumbra. The bookstore is the haunt of a secret society that exists to decode an ancient codex by the famous Venetian printer Aldus Manutius. With the help of Penumbra, childhood friend Neel, and new girlfriend, Kat, who works at Google, our feckless hero tries to solve the puzzle. Things don't turn out as planned, even when all the processing power of Google is applied to decoding Manutius's codex. Our hero saves the day by digging deeper and finding the true code. The answer isn't all that everyone thought it would be, but it is an answer. VERDICT Though the depiction of Google as a utopian meritocracy seems rather farcical, Sloan has created an arch tale knitting the analog past with the digital future that is compelling and readable. [See Prepub Alert, 4/9/12.]—Henry Bankhead, Los Gatos Lib., CA
Kirkus Reviews
All the best secrets are hidden in plain sight. The trick is to notice the secret in front of you. Sloan's debut novel takes the reader on a dazzling and flat-out fun adventure, winding through the interstices between the literary and the digital realms. Art school graduate and former NewBagel web designer Clay needs a job. One day, he stumbles into Mr. Penumbra's store and, seemingly on the basis of his love for The Dragon-Song Chronicles, lands himself a job as the night clerk. Narrow and tall, the bookstore is an odd place, with its severely limited selection of books to sell. Yet, just behind the commercial section, the shelves reach high toward the shadowy ceiling, crammed with a staggeringly large collection of books: a lending library for a small, peculiar group of people. Clay is forbidden to open the books yet required to describe the borrowers in great detail. Late-night boredom catalyzes curiosity, and soon Clay discovers that the books are part of a vast code, a code the book borrowers have been trying to crack for centuries. Could computers solve the paper puzzle? To assist him on his heroic quest, Clay collects a motley band of assistants. Among the crew is Kat, a Google employee and digital wizard, commanding code as well as a legion of distant computers. Neel, former sixth-grade Dungeon Master, is the financial warrior with his empire balanced on digital boob simulation. Book borrowers, cryptographers and digital pirates all lend a hand, but the gray-suited Corvina opposes them with all the power of a secret society. From the shadows of Penumbra's bookshelves to the brightly lit constellation of cyberspace to the depths of a subterranean library, Sloan deftly wields the magicks (definitely with a "k") of the electronic and the literary in this intricate mystery.
The Barnes & Noble Review

I launched my column of recommendations for book clubs with Alan Bennett's charming novel about bibliophilia, The Uncommon Reader. Well, I've just been seduced by another book that shares my passion for the printed word — but let me assure you that Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is no mere meta-book. Robin Sloan's beguiling first novel is a rousing quest narrative and technological adventure story about a chummy band of geeks who seek to crack a 500-year-old code that may hold the key to immortality. We're all used to the ubiquitous supermarket question, "Paper or plastic?" It's a binary choice: either/or. Sloan pits paper against screen and Old Knowledge (called "OK" by his tech-savvy characters) against new technology and — get this — has them all win.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore hits that literary sweet spot: a happy, life-affirming book that is at once fun and meaty, light but not insubstantial. In a yarn that encompasses Dungeons & Dragons–type role playing, it celebrates passionate engagement, quirky individuality, and resourcefulness. Sloan, a San Francisco–based, self-described "media inventor" with years of experience at digital-era companies Poynter, Current TV, and Twitter, has pulled off a delightful paean to paper, print, the Internet, and technology, including some innovations that are still just a glimmer in Googlers' eyes. For all you fontophiles out there, you'll be happy to know that a typeface plays a pivotal role in Sloan's story. So, too, does friendship.

Sloan's likable narrator, Clay Jannon, is a San Francisco–based RISD-trained designer who has lost his first and only marketing job during the Great Recession. He writes, "The whole economy suddenly felt like a game of musical chairs, and I was convinced I needed to grab a seat, any seat, as fast as I could." What he grabs is a job as night clerk at a strange, 24- hour bookshop next door to a strip joint in a dicey neighborhood. Wizardly, blue-eyed, old Mr. Penumbra's job interview consists of three penetrating questions: "What do you seek in these shelves?"; "Tell me about a book you love"; and, "But can you climb a ladder?" Clay aces this test with his impassioned description of a fantasy trilogy he fell in love with in sixth grade, Clark Moffat's The Dragon-Song Chronicles. This made-up classic is also vital to Sloan's narrative, and while I've never cottoned to fantasy fiction, Sloan not only convinces us that it's an actual book, but of its allure.

He works similar magic with a fictional fifteenth-century font he calls Gerritszoon, named after Griffo Gerritszoon, a colleague of the actual Venetian publisher and printer, Aldus Manutius, who in real life commissioned Francesco Griffo to cut the first slanted italic type. Clay maintains that Gerritszoon, the typeface featured in all the massive, leather- bound tomes shelved three storeys high in Mr. Penumbra's bookshop, is still widely used today, preloaded on various e-readers and computers. He calls Mr. Penumbra's lending library the "Waybacklist," and it is these beautiful volumes, written in indecipherable code, that his few customers, all regulars, come to borrow, in what he discovers is a set sequence. Convinced that the store must be a front for something dark, Clay enlists several friends to help him figure out what's going on.

We should all be lucky enough to have such tech support — and friends — on call. If Clay is the rogue in this quest to uncover the secrets behind what is in a way a consummately peculiar book club, his childhood best friend, nerdy Neel Shah, is his warrior. Neel, the soon-to-be-spectacularly-rich genius behind a software company called Anatomix, "the de facto tool for the digital representation of breasts in digital media," provides financial, emotional, and technological assistance for his old buddy's mission. Clay's wizard is brilliant Kat Potente, his sometime girlfriend, whose primary devotion, alas, is to her work at Google. Kat fervently believes that brain hardware is changing in response to new software and that "writers [like Shakespeare] had their turn, and now it's programmers who get to upgrade the human operating system." She also believes that immortality is a nut that technology can crack.

One of the many pleasures of Sloan's novel is its mix of good, old-fashioned storytelling brio and accessible techno-speak, frequently softened by humor. When Clay describes a programming language called Ruby, which powers the 3-D graphics engine he uses to make a digital model of the bookshop, he comments good-humoredly, "If this sounds impressive to you, you're over thirty." Mr. Penumbra, the Obi-Wan of Clay's Rebel Alliance, reacts to the news that Clay and his friends have used Google to solve a puzzle that has mystified and challenged members of his Unbroken Spine fellowship for centuries, with "the strangest expression on his face — the emotional equivalent of 404 PAGE NOT FOUND." Sloan ribs fusty bibliophiles and a local bookstore's "sprawling Food Politics section," but he has particular fun taking jabs at techies. "Books: boring. Codes: awesome. These are the people who are running the internet," he writes. At the end of a description of products that Google is working on — a list that includes a sushi search engine and a time machine! — Clay adds, "They are developing a form of renewable energy that runs on hubris. (Okay, I made that one up.)"

Clay's quest to solve the riddle of the bookstore takes him to numerous vividly described — and eminently filmable — locations. These include Google headquarters; an underground library in New York City; a museum of "Knitting Arts and Embroidery Sciences" whose mission is "almost as weird as Penumbra's"; and a vast, Home Depot–like warehouse in Enterprise, Nevada, where museum artifacts are stored, a sort of "Bloomberg terminal of antiquity." Sloan's affable, enterprising Everyman comments, "You know, I'm really starting to think the whole world is just a patchwork of crazy little cults, all with their own secret spaces, their own records, their own rules."

Among the questions Sloan's novel poses are why people love books, and what they seek in them. Answers range from their smell to the pursuit of knowledge. Anyone reading Mr. Penumbra is likely to add that people also seek distraction and entertainment, and love books like this for the considerable rush of pleasure they bring.

Two minor gripes: Sloan's Epilogue is so tidy, it's as if he's run a defrag program on his novel. And not fully trusting readers to have caught his message, he spells out his moral, as reductively oversimplified as a Wikipedia entry: "There is no immortality that is not built on friendship and work done with care. All the secrets in the world worth knowing are hiding in plain sight?. It's not easy to imagine the year 3012, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try. We have new capabilities now — strange powers we're still getting used to?. Your life must be an open city, with all sorts of ways to wander in." It's as if Sloan decided to tack on his own prefab "Readers' Guide for Discussion." Still, if you are looking for entry points for discussion ? voilà.

Sloan also provides hints for further reading by stocking Mr. Penumbra's shelves with fiction by Haruki Murakami, Neal Stephenson, and Dashiell Hammett. Murakami's wonderfully surreal novel Kafka on the Shore, which John Updike described as an "insistently metaphysical mind-bender," also features a private library setting as well as an intellectual cocktail of fantasy and adventure. On another tact, if you're fond of fonts and interested in the detail-obsessed designers who create them, Simon Garfield's Just My Type is eye candy for typomaniacs. All of these books make a robust case for the future of literature, in whatever format you choose to read them.

Heller McAlpin is a New York–based critic who reviews books for, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.

Reviewer: Heller McAlpin

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374708832
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 10/2/2012
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 7,297
  • File size: 417 KB

Read an Excerpt


LOST IN THE SHADOWS of the shelves, I almost fall off the ladder. I am exactly halfway up. The floor of the bookstore is far below me, the surface of a planet I’ve left behind. The tops of the shelves loom high above, and it’s dark up there—the books are packed in close, and they don’t let any light through. The air might be thinner, too. I think I see a bat.
I am holding on for dear life, one hand on the ladder, the other on the lip of a shelf, fingers pressed white. My eyes trace a line above my knuckles, searching the spines—and there, I spot it. The book I’m looking for.
But let me back up.
*   *   *
My name is Clay Jannon and those were the days when I rarely touched paper.
I’d sit at my kitchen table and start scanning help-wanted ads on my laptop, but then a browser tab would blink and I’d get distracted and follow a link to a long magazine article about genetically modified wine grapes. Too long, actually, so I’d add it to my reading list. Then I’d follow another link to a book review. I’d add the review to my reading list, too, then download the first chapter of the book—third in a series about vampire police. Then, help-wanted ads forgotten, I’d retreat to the living room, put my laptop on my belly, and read all day. I had a lot of free time.
I was unemployed, a result of the great food-chain contraction that swept through America in the early twenty-first century, leaving bankrupt burger chains and shuttered sushi empires in its wake.
The job I lost was at the corporate headquarters of NewBagel, which was based not in New York or anywhere else with a tradition of bagel-making but instead here in San Francisco. The company was very small and very new. It was founded by a pair of ex-Googlers who wrote software to design and bake the platonic bagel: smooth crunchy skin, soft doughy interior, all in a perfect circle. It was my first job out of art school, and I started as a designer, making marketing materials to explain and promote this tasty toroid: menus, coupons, diagrams, posters for store windows, and, once, an entire booth experience for a baked-goods trade show.
There was lots to do. First, one of the ex-Googlers asked me to take a crack at redesigning the company’s logo. It had been big bouncy rainbow letters inside a pale brown circle; it looked pretty MS Paint. I redesigned if using a newish typeface with sharp black serifs that I thought sort of evoked the boxes and daggers of Hebrew letters. It gave NewBagel some gravitas and it won me an award from San Francisco’s AIGA chapter. Then, when I mentioned to the other ex-Googler that I knew how to code (sort of), she put me in charge of the website. So I redesigned that, too, and then managed a small marketing budget keyed to search terms like “bagel” and “breakfast” and “topology.” I was also the voice of @NewBagel on Twitter and attracted a few hundred followers with a mix of breakfast trivia and digital coupons.
None of this represented the glorious next stage of human evolution, but I was learning things. I was moving up. But then the economy took a dip, and it turns out that in a recession, people want good old-fashioned bubbly oblong bagels, not smooth alien-spaceship bagels, not even if they’re sprinkled with precision-milled rock salt.
The ex-Googlers were accustomed to success and they would not go quietly. They quickly rebranded to become the Old Jerusalem Bagel Company and abandoned the algorithm entirely so the bagels started coming out blackened and irregular. They instructed me to make the website look old-timey, a task that burdened my soul and earned me zero AIGA awards. The marketing budget dwindled, then disappeared. There was less and less to do. I wasn’t learning anything and I wasn’t moving anywhere.
Finally, the ex-Googlers threw in the towel and moved to Costa Rica. The ovens went cold and the website went dark. There was no money for severance, but I got to keep my company-issued MacBook and the Twitter account.
So then, after less than a year of employment, I was jobless. It turned out it was more than just the food chains that had contracted. People were living in motels and tent cities. The whole economy suddenly felt like a game of musical chairs, and I was convinced I needed to grab a seat, any seat, as fast as I could.
That was a depressing scenario when I considered the competition. I had friends who were designers like me, but they had already designed world-famous websites or advanced touch-screen interfaces, not just the logo for an upstart bagel shop. I had friends who worked at Apple. My best friend, Neel, ran his own company. Another year at NewBagel and I would have been in good shape, but I hadn’t lasted long enough to build my portfolio, or even get particularly good at anything. I had an art-school thesis on Swiss typography (1957–1983) and I had a three-page website.
But I kept at it with the help-wanted ads. My standards were sliding swiftly. At first I had insisted I would only work at a company with a mission I believed in. Then I thought maybe it would be fine as long as I was learning something new. After that I decided it just couldn’t be evil. Now I was carefully delineating my personal definition of evil.
It was paper that saved me. It turned out that I could stay focused on job hunting if I got myself away from the internet, so I would print out a ream of help-wanted ads, drop my phone in a drawer, and go for a walk. I’d crumple up the ads that required too much experience and deposit them in dented green trash cans along the way, and so by the time I’d exhausted myself and hopped on a bus back home, I’d have two or three promising prospectuses folded in my back pocket, ready for follow-up.
This routine did lead me to a job, though not in the way I’d expected.
San Francisco is a good place for walks if your legs are strong. The city is a tiny square punctuated by steep hills and bounded on three sides by water, and as a result, there are surprise vistas everywhere. You’ll be walking along, minding your own business with a fistful of printouts, and suddenly the ground will fall away and you’ll see straight down to the bay, with the buildings lit up orange and pink along the way. San Francisco’s architectural style didn’t really make inroads anywhere else in the country, and even when you live here and you’re used to it, it lends the vistas a strangeness: all the tall narrow houses, the windows like eyes and teeth, the wedding-cake filigree. And looming behind it all, if you’re facing the right direction, you’ll see the rusty ghost of the Golden Gate Bridge.
I had followed one strange vista down a line of steep stairstepped sidewalks, then walked along the water, taking the very long way home. I had followed the line of old piers—carefully skirting the raucous chowder of Fisherman’s Wharf—and watched seafood restaurants fade into nautical engineering firms and then social media startups. Finally, when my stomach rumbled, signaling its readiness for lunch, I had turned back in toward the city.
Whenever I walked the streets of San Francisco, I’d watch for HELP WANTED signs in windows—which is not something you really do, right? I should probably be more suspicious of those. Legitimate employers use Craigslist.
Sure enough, the 24-hour bookstore did not have the look of a legitimate employer:
Late Shift
Specific Requirements
Good Benefits
Now: I was pretty sure “24-hour bookstore” was a euphemism for something. It was on Broadway, in a euphemistic part of town. My help-wanted hike had taken me far from home; the place next door was called Booty’s and it had a sign with neon legs that crossed and uncrossed.
I pushed the bookstore’s glass door. It made a bell tinkle brightly up above, and I stepped slowly through. I did not realize at the time what an important threshold I had just crossed.
Inside: imagine the shape and volume of a normal bookstore turned up on its side. This place was absurdly narrow and dizzyingly tall, and the shelves went all the way up—three stories of books, maybe more. I craned my neck back (why do bookstores always make you do uncomfortable things with your neck?) and the shelves faded smoothly into the shadows in a way that suggested they might just go on forever.
The shelves were packed close together, and it felt like I was standing at the border of a forest—not a friendly California forest, either, but an old Transylvanian forest, a forest full of wolves and witches and dagger-wielding bandits all waiting just beyond moonlight’s reach. There were ladders that clung to the shelves and rolled side to side. Usually those seem charming, but here, stretching up into the gloom, they were ominous. They whispered rumors of accidents in the dark.
So I stuck to the front half of the store, where bright midday light pressed in and presumably kept the wolves at bay. The wall around and above the door was glass, thick square panes set into a grid of black iron, and arched across them, in tall golden letters, it said (in reverse):
Below that, set in the hollow of the arch, there was a symbol—two hands, perfectly flat, rising out of an open book.
So who was Mr. Penumbra?
“Hello, there,” a quiet voice called from the stacks. A figure emerged—a man, tall and skinny like one of the ladders, draped in a light gray button-down and a blue cardigan. He tottered as he walked, running a long hand along the shelves for support. When he came out of the shadows, I saw that his sweater matched his eyes, which were also blue, riding low in nests of wrinkles. He was very old.
He nodded at me and gave a weak wave. “What do you seek in these shelves?”
That was a good line, and for some reason, it made me feel comfortable. I asked, “Am I speaking to Mr. Penumbra?”
“I am Penumbra”—he nodded—“and I am the custodian of this place.”
I didn’t quite realize I was going to say it until I did: “I’m looking for a job.”
Penumbra blinked once, then nodded and tottered over to the desk set beside the front door. It was a massive block of dark-whorled wood, a solid fortress on the forest’s edge. You could probably defend it for days in the event of a siege from the shelves.
“Employment.” Penumbra nodded again. He slid up onto the chair behind the desk and regarded me across its bulk. “Have you ever worked at a bookstore before?”
“Well,” I said, “when I was in school I waited tables at a seafood restaurant, and the owner sold his own cookbook.” It was called The Secret Cod and it detailed thirty-one different ways to— You get it. “That probably doesn’t count.”
“No, it does not, but no matter,” Penumbra said. “Prior experience in the book trade is of little use to you here.”
Wait—maybe this place really was all erotica. I glanced down and around, but glimpsed no bodices, ripped or otherwise. In fact, just next to me there was a stack of dusty Dashiell Hammetts on a low table. That was a good sign.
“Tell me,” Penumbra said, “about a book you love.”
I knew my answer immediately. No competition. I told him, “Mr. Penumbra, 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 took a breath. “I love The Dragon-Song Chronicles.”
Penumbra cocked an eyebrow, then smiled. “That is good, very good,” he said, and his smile grew, showing jostling white teeth. Then he squinted at me, and his gaze went up and down. “But can you climb a ladder?”
*   *   *
And that is how I find myself on this ladder, up on the third floor, minus the floor, of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. The book I’ve been sent up to retrieve is called AL-ASMARI and it’s about 150 percent of one arm-length to my left. Obviously, I need to return to the floor and scoot the ladder over. But down below, Penumbra is shouting, “Lean, my boy! Lean!”
And wow, do I ever want this job.

Copyright © 2012 by Robin Sloan
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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation Between Robin Sloan and Charles Yu

I was rereading Robin Sloan's debut novel and Holiday '12 Discover pick, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, last night and not only couldn't I turn the pages fast enough, I couldn't stop smiling as I dropped back into Sloan's charmingly oddball world. Penumbra is so much fun, a real romp, storytelling that's at once modern and old-fashioned, and it's easy to draw comparisons to Murakami and Stephenson (both Discover alums).

The Discover selection committee readers and I are hardly alone in our admiration: Charles Yu, author of the ambitious — and souful - - 2010 Discover selection, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, is also a fan. Both authors made the time to converse via email, and here they are on first-person vs. third- person narration, How Fiction Works by James Wood, and creating entirely new worlds with text, among other things. — Miwa Messer, Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Program.

Robin Sloan: Most of the stories in your new collection are first-person. My novel is first-person, too, and I have a theory that it's the native mode of the early 21st century, because of email and the Web and Twitter — all this first-person writing that surrounds us every day. But I guess I also have a theory that it's just easier than third-person...and I'll take any advantage I can get.

So I'm curious to know if you feel the same way. Have stories always come out naturally in first-person for you? Have you tried other modes and decided, "nah, 'I' is really more my style"?

Charles Yu: I think you're onto something when you say first-person is "the native mode of the early 21st century," although I would qualify that by saying that is much more true of writers who are just starting out or close to it, and less true for writers who have been writing since the last millennium. No doubt it has something to do with email and Twitter, as you point out, and also Facebook and video games and all of this first-person writing. Of course, people have always navigated the world in first-person — but I think the difference now is that everyone wants to be a protagonist. And if you're living in the US, and relatively comfortable, you have the means and opportunity to do so, to construct reality so that you're at the center of it.

There are, of course, tradeoffs. Although there are stories that can only be told in first-person, there are many more stories that don't have to be (and probably shouldn't be), and among those, there are stories and storytellers who can do things with third-person that would just not be possible in first. And knowing this, it actually bothers me a bit, both as a writer, and in a broader sense: am I limited in the kinds of stories I can tell? Even more troubling: am I limiting myself in how I see and understand other people, putting a ceiling on my own empathy? With the first question, I think I probably am, and so with the novel I'm currently working on, I am in fact trying to write it in third. As for the larger issue of empathy, I don't know that writing in different modes will necessarily help me in my efforts to be a less crappy human, but I can't see how it would hurt.

Have you ever tried to write in third-person? If not, do you feel any desire to do so? And what do you think about the idea of everyone being a protagonist? That's more egalitarian and enabling for people without voices or access, but aren't there downsides? If everyone's the main character, does that lead to a decrease in empathy? Also, if "I" is the new native mode, does that lead to a selection effect, limiting the kinds of stories that can be told?

RS: I'm also trying to write something in third-person at this very moment. For me, it's been like playing a familiar video game now set on Super Hard Extreme Inferno mode. I mean, I technically know how to play this game, and I've already beat it they are not kidding this is really hard.

I've been using James Wood's How Fiction Works almost like a how-to guide, which is probably a little ridiculous, but I'm okay with that. The book is an explication of what he calls "free indirect style" — a third-person mode where the narration tends to merge with the protagonist's thoughts, to dip into her brain without always signaling that it's doing so. As a result, it preserves many of the benefits of first-person writing, but then also grants you the flexibility of third-person. Wood's book is crisp and smart — I recommend it.

I'm actually optimistic about mass protagonization. One of the virtues of writing in first-person for an audience, even a very small one, is that it forces you to actually decide what you think. When you sit down to write, even if it's just to share a link on Facebook, you have to render the fuzzy cloud in your head into something solid. There are ways to avoid the exertion, of course — instead of writing an actual thought, you can always just release a big loud LOLLL — but even so, I think today, in 2012, more people are deciding what they think about things than ever before, and I think that's a healthy development.

You're right that video games are part of this, too. Do you play them much yourself? What do you think of games as a medium, potentially, to do some of the same things you do with your stories — explore strange scenarios, provoke new feelings? If a company came calling and said, "Yu, enough with the books already! This is the 21st century. Come write our next game!" — would you be interested?

CY: I enjoyed How Fiction Works, especially the first part, which as you know is essentially a love letter to close third-person. Wood is better at reading than I realized it was possible to be — or maybe it's that he's just so good at explaining what he likes and why, especially the magic of the free indirect style. In the latter chapters of that book, however, he gets away from the descriptive and goes into full-on prescriptive, and I couldn't help but feel that he does not have much tolerance for books that don't work in the particular way that he requires of fiction. Even in his curmudgeon mode, though, he's still quite a treat to read, but the assumptions he makes start to pile up — How Fiction Works is an audacious thing to call a book, and I can understand its appeal on many levels, but in those three words, he certainly presumes a lot about both writers and readers. A more honest title would have been How Certain Kinds of Fiction Work, but that wouldn't have looked as good on the cover.

Your video game analogy is perfect, both in terms of describing the degree of difficulty and the type. For someone like me, writing in mostly first-person for the past ten years, trying now to write a novel in third is like playing a game with someone else's hands. And someone else's eyeballs. And yet, like you, I am determined to do it.

I do play video games, although not as much as I once did. There are definitely ways that games can, as you put it, allow people to "explore strange scenarios" and "provoke new feelings" and I think, because it's a different medium, games can require us to access different (and maybe even more) parts of the brain than books do, but what I'm curious about is whether they will do the same for the heart (or, if I can say it, the soul). You've worked at some really cool places, and are a media inventor and certainly better equipped to speculate on such things than I am: what do you think? Do you think game worlds will rival or even replace book- shaped fictional universes? Or some other, newer medium, some convergence of books and games and movies and GPS and FourSquare and Reddit and who-knows-what else?

And yes, to answer your question, I think it would be cool to write a game, although I don't know how interested anyone would be in a metafictional time travel game with melancholy overtones. How about you — would you write a Penumbra (or any other) game?

RS: Oh man, people would totally play a metafictional time travel game with melancholy overtones!

I think the challenge for games doesn't have anything to do with graphics or sound or interactivity. Rather, it's all about how they're made. Video game production today is a lot like blockbuster movie production — there are so many contributors, so many constraints. The results are frequently spectacular, but almost never subtle — almost never weird or truly original. (I say "almost" out of respect for the indie creators who make games that are both.)

If it's the heart and soul you're after, I just don't think you can beat solo authorship. But I'll admit, I do often find myself wondering if there's some way to combine the creative power of a single imagination with the productive potential of a big team. The best I've come up with so far is wishing for a sort of writing super power through which I can spawn copies of myself to work on different parts of a story in parallel. (Which of course reminds me of the conversation between alternate selves in your story collection. I'm sure we'd be more organized, though.)

What would your writing super power and/or mutation be?

CY: So sorry for the delay. I've been working on my game, Super Sad Meta-Fictional Time Machine. I'm hoping to get the rights so that you can unlock the secret boss character, Gary Shteyngart.

What you said about games seems to crystallize the issue for me. So if I can paraphrase and extrapolate from there, the issue is that the machine is a die-cast, and the mold is cast in the shape of Gigantic Stupendous AAA Franchise Titles — that's the only kind of product that can be made from this machine (bells and whistles might change, but the basic shape is overdetermined by the constraints and the nature of the process. So my follow-up question to you is: is there (or will there soon be) an alternative to this process? In music, ProTools allows musicians to make music outside of studios, and in film there's FinalCut Pro. Can one video game developer, working in her or his apartment, release the equivalent of a Bon Iver album, something with a singular, subtle, idiosyncratic voice? If not, is it an issue of constraints in technology, or economics, or distribution channels? I suppose iOS apps are already sort of a channel where a single person can release something to a mass audience, so I guess my question is more about PC/console games...

I like your idea for a writing power, and the one you chose totally makes sense for someone with your background and proficiency with technology — it's sort of like having superhuman skill at project management. In my case, however, I fear that such a power would result in 200 copies of me, all of them with writer's block. My writing super power would be the ability to imagine what my Ideal Reader would say about my draft. Although that might freeze me into permanent paralysis and cause me to stop writing altogether.

RS: I think a lone programmer can definitely produce the video game equivalent of a Bon Iver album in her secluded log- cabin laboratory. It helps if she's strategic with her style. She almost certainly can't produce all the art and animation that's required for a Gigantic Stupendous AAA Franchise Title...but 8-bit graphics? Or playful sketchy 2D shapes? That's doable.

And so, of course, is text.

As we've been writing back and forth, I've been playing through a couple of old text adventures made by the long-defunct game company Infocom. These are the games where you type "go north" and the computer responds "You are standing in an open field..." and so on. I played a bunch as a kid, but had forgotten all the details, and it's been fun to rediscover them.

(Some of these text adventures totally have the feel of your stories, by the way. There's the same intelligence, the same humor, the same set of cosmic concerns.)

Playing these games, and thinking about this conversation, it's occurred to me that fiction (of a certain kind) and games (of a certain kind) might actually be points on the same continuum. We apply the label "interactive" easily to games, but of course fiction is deeply interactive, too: you're doing a lot of work when you read a novel or a short story. And we apply the label "literary" easily to fiction, but I think it can apply to certain games as well. It definitely applies to some of these old text adventures.

Now I'm imagining an alternate history where text adventures grew into a big, popular medium (instead of withering in the early '90s); where writers, people who love language, could decide: "Hmm, should this project be a novel...or a short story...or a text adventure?"; and likewise, where game makers, people who love systems, could decide: "Hmm, should this project be a 3D shooter...or a 2D platformer...or a text adventure?"

I really want to live in that world.

> You are standing in a dark cave.

CY: Oh man, that takes me back. In my childhood I was eaten by a grue so many times. You'd think I would have gotten over it by now, and yet thinking of it still sends a little dart of dread through me. Eight years old, sitting alone in the dark, dying a silent, textual death, over and over again. And then re-entering the text, over and over again. The books I've loved have always been like that: less like museums, where you passively admire the artful installations of prose, and more like sandboxes, places where you can move around a bit, change the terrain. Leave some footprints.

That's how I felt about your novel from the very first pages — the spirit of experimentation, of something new, of really not knowing. Not just in terms of not knowing "what is going to happen?", but in terms of "what is this thing that I'm holding?" Is this a new thing? Has there ever been a thing like this before?

I like the idea of living in an alternate history, and not knowing it. Of living in a reality that is the opposite of what everyone thinks it is. Of the invisible furniture of the universe constantly rearranging itself while we aren't looking. So yes, I'm with you. Let's go on an adventure:

> We are standing in a ark cave.

—October 9, 2012

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Reading Group Guide

Sweeping from Europe's legendary Renaissance book printers to the new frontiers of the Information Age, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is a rollicking adventure and an inspiring ode to the published word.

Like many victims of the Great Recession, the web designer Clay Jannon finds himself out of a job. Then, thanks to serendipity (and his ability to climb a ladder like a monkey), Clay lands a new gig working the night shift at a mysterious San Francisco shop, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. After just a few days on the job, Clay begins to wonder how the store stays in business. There are only a few customers. They come in repeatedly, but never seem to actually buy anything, instead "checking out" impossibly obscure volumes from strange corners of the store, all according to some elaborate, long-standing arrangement with the gnomic Mr. Penumbra. Clay soon ropes his friends into helping to figure out just what's going on, revealing tantalizing secrets that can be traced back to the world's first typeset books. In this captivating debut novel, Robin Sloan lures us to a hallowed bookstore that we'll never want to leave, where a mysterious collection raises compelling questions about the nature of our love for books and the future of reading itself.

The discussion topics that follow are designed to enhance your reading of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. We hope they will enrich your experience of this inventive literary tale.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 249 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 249 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 5, 2012

    Magical, fun, and funny

    At the intersection of book & tech, type & typing, Dan Brown & Borges, a book-lover's dream novel. Get it. Read it. Love it. Now.

    23 out of 24 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 13, 2012

    BAM! Holy font Batman!

    If you love books, the old fashioned paper ones and the new e-books, you will love this read. What do you hope to find in all of the books you read? Why do you read so much? A book not only about people that love books, but about how our friends are called upon, about our own curiosity about things we don't understand, and what we do to satisfy our curiosity. All who were involved or know someone who is/was a Dungeons and Dragons fan will see someone they know (or are). And the geeks shall inherit the earth.

    16 out of 20 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 13, 2012

    Debut novel?

    It's perfect. Such a treat to read. Has everything you could want. It almost feels like it was written just for me, designed and thought out for me. Sort of a relief to know there's more of me, if you love this book, you're a friend of mine <3

    13 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 13, 2013

    Tongue in cheek humor pervades this book. The story centers arou

    Tongue in cheek humor pervades this book. The story centers around the eccentric owner of a strange and wonderful bookstore, where books are revered, and also the clerk he hires, Clay Jannon. Clay is out of work, driven into an aimless state of being by a failing economy. One day, while walking, he discovers a job opportunity as the night clerk for Ajax Penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore. The shop seems to exist for a dual purpose. On the one hand, it is a bookstore, albeit not one that sells many popular books, or many books at all, for that matter, and on the other hand, it caters to a group of unusual people who are studying odd books in order to discover a very well-kept, hidden secret. The bookstore is reminiscent of a library or a museum. Shelves are filled with ancient manuscripts from floor to ceiling, a ceiling only reached with the aid of a ladder. It is a temple for books.

    The secret, that this unusual group of people, seem to be searching for, is a missing code. They must decipher it when they find it. What is this mysterious code? It is the key to eternal life, the key to immortality. In this brief novel, the reader is led on an abstract journey to find the answer. It is often outside reality, and it is often very confusing.

    This creative little book combines the wisdom of the ages with the creativity of technology to search for the answer. The merry chase is sometimes convoluted and, truth be told, in several places I was completely lost, but soon, the thread is picked up again and the search goes on. In the end, for me, the message of the book was that eternal life, immortality, is the written word, it is what we leave behind as our accomplishments, as well. Time marches on for everyone and so does progress.

    As the book proudly proclaims: “There is no immortality that is not built on friendship and work done with care. …all secrets worth knowing are hiding in plain sight.”

    8 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 14, 2012


    Loved this book fantastically fun, fast moving and holds your interest! Immediately wanted to find more to read by this author to find out this is his first book, will be watching for more!

    7 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 2, 2012

    Fun read for computer dorks and dungens and dragon dorks alike!

    I want to live next door to this book store. Really i want to work there, read there, maybe even get locked in there every once in awhile. I mean if it weren't a 24hour book store.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 25, 2012

    Serious Fun!

    A serious book which doesn't take itself too seriously. Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore concerns an unusual San Francisco book store, and the eccentric cast of characters associated with it. The narrator, Clay, is a smart but down-on-his-luck relatively recent college graduate who stumbles into working at the title book store where he soon discovers a literary mystery. Naturally, he sets about trying to solve it. Clay is clever (so there are numerous funny lines), as are most of those in his orbit, but he and his friends are also kind which makes all of them likable characters for whom it is easy to care, and easy to cheer. The novel is an homage to quest novels, and a celebration of the friendship (or fellowship as it always is in a quest novel) that sustains when in the midst of such journeys. Really, really fun read!

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 2, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Well worth the time and money just for the storyline...

    Once it's out in paperback it will make an excellent present. I would explain just exactly what I liked about the storyline and how it progressed, plus the character development, but that would be a spoiler not unlike finding out about the end of the Sixth Sense before seeing the movie.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 30, 2012

    Recommended for book and tech lovers!

    This was a fun book to read for a book lover such as myself. Also a good light read for someone into technology. It is fun to see the two worlds at odds and then come together to solve the mystery. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 11, 2013

    Highly recommended for both nerds and "real" book lovers

    Having worked in printing and publishing when it was "hot press" and then "cold press" this book was especially interesting to me. I remember trays and trays of little letters being set by hand in our print shop. And loving computers and technology in general, the book has "feet" in both worlds/both times. While parts seemed pure fiction, I was surprised to find, after research, that many of those parts are fact. It's a fun read.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 20, 2013

    Excellent Book!

    Very good read... and at the ending the epilogue wrapped everything up nicely, which I think should be in every book. I'm not spoiling anything, so I'm telling you right now: read this, you won't be disappointed. :)

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 20, 2013

    I loved this book. It was fun, unusual, with a good mystery to

    I loved this book. It was fun, unusual, with a good mystery to solve and interesting local SF Bay Area characters. A fast fun read.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 23, 2013

    a thin gruel

    Yes, this book is clever. I do like how the author weaves in all manner of information technology, from early typesetting to Google's spider-armed book scanner. But as I turned the (virtual) pages, the whole story felt so thin: the characters sketchy modern versions of quest archetypes (the author admits as much, minus the 'sketchy' part); the plot a creaky contrivance.

    A few chapters in, the protagonist makes a virtual model of the bookstore he's working in on his computer. At the end of the description he addresses the reader: (I'm paraphrasing): "If this sounds impressive to you," he writes, "you're over 30."

    And if this books seems impressive to you, I'll wager that you are not much of a reader.

    2 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 8, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    This was a totally fun read!

    This was a totally fun read!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 5, 2012

    I Loved It.

    I not only want to re-read this book, I want to live it. At the very least, I want to live in Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 19, 2012


    Techies on a romp, pretty fun, light reading, high tech combined with ancient text.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 13, 2012

    An Excellent Read

    An Excellent Read

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 4, 2013

    Worth the Time.


    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 25, 2013


    Fun to read. Not terribly engaging at first. Nice message at the end.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 29, 2013


    Enjoyed but wasn't rushing page to page to see what happened next

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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