Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore - 3 stars

A man walking fast down a dark lonely street. Quick steps and hard breathing, all wonder and need. A bell above a door and the tinkle it makes. A clerk and a ladder and warm golden light, and then: the right book exactly, at exactly the right time.

How to attract a bibliophile's interest? Write a book about books; insert 'book', 'bookstore' or 'library' in said book's title; design a gorgeous cover filled with books - oh, and make them glow in the dark for good measure. Way before actually reading it, I fell in love with Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore for the same reasons - in more or less the same order.

The first thing that came to my mind after actually reading it: the universe loves throwing a wrench into excitement of any kind. You see, in my mind this was somehow the book meant to usher in an year of amazing reads, the One Book that would break my reviewing dry spell. And of course it's the one I ended up being most unsure of - ever. So... where to even start?

Don't get me wrong: Mr. Penumbra's stays true to the promise of its most fascinating title. A bookstore that's never closed, not once in all its history. Narrow stacks of bookshelves so tall they go up, up and away into the shadows. Thousands of volumes by unknown writers, in an unrecognized language. Eccentric customers dropping in at odd hours, requesting obscure books. Never to purchase, but to check out using member cards printed with the store's mystical logo, as if it were a secret library of sorts.

And that's just a sample of the bookstore's allure and mystery, as revealed by the observations of Clay Jannon. He is an out-of-job web designer who lands the position of night clerk at the bookstore. Intrigued by the unusual happenings, he enlists the help of some friends to make sense of what Mr. Penumbra's patrons are up to. The discovery leads to some wholly unexpected and drastic consequences.

A story so steeped in century-old bookstores and leather-bound books, I assumed, would be charming in a vintage way. I'm happy to be wrong; Mr. Penumbra's is a love letter addressed to gorgeous hardcovers and sturdy kindles, to secret knowledge gained by persistent minds and the power of open technology to solve problems. Some of the key events even unfold within Google's headquarters, romanticized as a citadel of human intelligence and technology. In many ways, Mr. Penumbra's is a delightful meeting point of old and new worlds, and becomes increasingly riveting as more and more astonishing layers are peeled away.

So, why just 3 stars for what sounds like a wonderful read? Well... for one, the element of surprise and thrill could have been handled way better. In spite of enormous scope for heart-thudding-in-ribcage moments, they end up being wasted opportunities. The core premise is also predictable - given that it's a book about books, more than anything else. Roadblocks are resolved too easily, with just the right connections and resources coming along as and when needed. But the main problem is irksome and unrelatable characters.

Clay comes across as boring and detached - even in the middle of exciting events. Mr. Penumbra and Kat Potente, Clay's super-smart romantic interest, start off as interesting characters. But like everybody else, they are seen only through Clay's perspective, making them fuzzy and one-dimensional. And then there's Neel Shah, that awful amalgamation of two bad tropes: hero's token Asian friend and geek obsessed with female anatomy. But instead of a fat white geek living in parents' basement, we get a successful Indian health-junkie entrepreneur. And that's my biggest grudge: you can't just flip outward traits to whitewash a poorly written stereotype. One bad portrayal of geeks is no less derogatory than the other. In a book so awash with geek culture, it's especially disheartening.

Really then, 3 stars? For a book that takes on so many topics with aplomb, yes. From stimulating conversations ranging from startups to The Singularity, speculations about codes and secret societies, unleashing the power of data visualizations and Hadoop, Mr. Penumbra's has it all. What's more, embedded within this book about books is - a book! It's a fictional fantasy series enchantingly named The Dragon-Song Chronicles. Snippets of it are quoted as clues, as uncanny connections arise between events in the two books. So meta! 

Mr. Penumbra's is a lovely read, if you manage to block out the silly things characters sometimes do, or say, or are. For all its flaws, it redeems itself by underscoring the sweet and memorable connections forged with people over books.