I picked this book up from Barnes and Noble on a trip to New York earlier this year. I knew nothing of it but loved the title and the striking cover. Oh yes I’m nothing if not shallow! Of course I did eventually read the blurb on the back.
My shallow tendencies paid off because this is a wonderful book, and actually not at all what I expected. It has a touch of the magic, a large dollop of Harry Potterness and a big dash of reality.
The main character Clay is an out of work web designer who finds himself a job in Mr Penumbras 24 hour books store. He is on the night shift and he realises early on that this is a special kind of book store.
“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 (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.”
A few days into the job and it becomes clear to Clay that he is not going to be busy selling books. The customers are few and far between and they never buy anything. Instead they seek out large obscure volumes from the far reaches of the store. Soon, Clay with the help of his friends begin to unravel the mysteries of Mr Penumbras store. His friendship with Mr Penumbra develops and with him he begins a journey from in Francisco, to New York and back again.
The story cleverly weaves magic and mystery with the presumed real life goings on inside the ‘Google’ empire. It unites books in their oldest form with the latest technological advances and enables them to co-exist. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Harry Potter as I read this. There isn’t a broomstick called a nimbus 2000 but there is a laser cutter called a ‘Grumble Gear 3000, and Harry Potter is even mentioned by name at one point in the text.
There are lots of characters in this book and if I’m perfectly honest I did get a little muddled over who they all were but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of it. The twinkly eyed Mr Penumbra was without doubt my favourite character. He was equally at home in dusty bookshops filled with ancient manuscripts as he was at a trendy New York bar sipping cocktails.
This New York Times described this book as “part love letter to books, part technological meditation , part thrilling adventure, part requiem….” I couldn’t agree more. I’m very pleased I decided to look pick it up and dive in beyond the yellow cover and the quirky title.