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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore: Old Meets New, and Trendy

Robin Sloan's debut novel, 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?

11 comments:

  1. Havent read it sorry but it sounds interesting. Sort of reminds me of the Jack Susko series by Lenny Bartulin, mysteries set in a bookstore. Ill keep an eye out for it.

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    1. I'll be interested to hear what you think - it's definitely a bookish mystery!

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  2. Loved this story - I read it last year when it came out in e-book format. I'm excited to buy it in hardback format now. Such an interesting story - very topical.

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    1. See, I thought much of the periphery was much more interesting than the story itself. The story seemed just an excuse for Sloan to tell us about how cool technology is.

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  3. I also sorta liked it and gave it 3 stars, but couldn't get over all the groaners. Like these:

    "He has the strangest expression on his face, the emotive equivalent of 404 PAGE NOT FOUND."

    "Kat bought a New York Times but couldn't figure out how to operate it, so now she's fiddling with her phone."

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    1. HA! The 404 PAGE NOT FOUND one elicited a rather audible groan from over here, as well. The NYT one was just an eye-roll...

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  4. I am well over 30 & I loved its Dan Brown-ish cult, bookstore lore, typography, history of books & printing.... It's quite bookish in a highly digital way. Didn't you feel Borges' library in there? I read it after Night Circus, so the magic was still strong!

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    1. See, comparing it to Dan Brown isn't really going to make me appreciate it more. ;)

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  5. Ack - can't stand a book that tries too hard and it sure sounds like this one does.

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  6. I have read many different things about this book. Personally I liked it - it reminded me of The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas just something about the whole mystery side of things. I am now on the search for another book like it!

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