Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, is a funny, fashionable novel about the seeming tension between the computerized digital age and dusty, old-fashioned, mystery-infused books and bookstores. It's a novel that really wants you to know how hip it is — with asides about the Singularity (which Time Magazine actually covered last year), Google's absurd computing power and other really cool stuff you can do with computers, that, if you're impressed by, "you must be over 30."
At its heart, it's a literary mystery — just what is going on in this weird bookstore mid-20s San Franciscan Clay Jannon finds himself working at, after he's let go of his web design job? Who are all these weirdos that come to the store in the middle of the night and breathlessly request these books that don't exist anywhere else in the world (believe him, Clay's Googled them!)?
The action of the novel really starts when Clay and his new girlfriend Kat — who works at Google in data visualization, and is so smart and cute — solve one of the mysteries of the bookstore using fancy computer stuff. But of course, this mystery leads to a much bigger mystery involving a font from the middle ages and one of the first printers who published much of the knowledge of the ancient world. So Clay and Kat go to New York City to find Mr. Penumbra (who, of course, has disappeared, but they use computers to find where he's going), and try to get to the bottom of this incredibly mysterious bookish mystery.
This is one of those novels I know I'm supposed to like — but I'm not sure I did. I could never shake the feeling of how proud of itself it seemed to be. (I'll admit that it's entirely possible that I'm still smarting from that crack about the apparent simple-mindedness and lack of tech sophistication of people over 30.) Okay, but beyond that — there are sections of this novel that involve nearly impossible
coincidences, and other sections that summarize a fantasy series of novels of which Clay and his friend are big fans of, but which seem like a parody of Game of Thrones, but which we're maybe supposed to take seriously? And then these Game of Thrones-like stories suddenly become an important part of the plot too.
And even though it really is a quick, often fun read (I read it in two sittings on planes — to and from San Francisco, incidentally), it just seemed to bow under the pressure from how hard it was trying to be cool and make you like it. Clay constantly produces these silly sarcastic asides (the story's told in first person), that are sometimes funny, but more often seeming to screaming "Please, like me! I'm really hip and urban and cool!" (Also, Clay and Kat's first date is "virtual" - i.e, he's working at the bookstore and on a video chat while she shepherds him-on-the-computer around a party. That was groan-worthy, for me.)
And but this is one you may not want to take my word for, since most people who have read it have seemed to like it — it has a 3.93 rating on Goodreads. I give it three stars, myself. Either way, it's not a huge time-committment and it's gotten a lot of hype, so I'd definitely be interested to hear someone talk me into liking it. Anyone?