Saturday, May 17, 2014

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Title: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
Author: Robin Sloan
Genre: Fiction
Published: 2012
Rating: 8/10

Review: When I encounter a book review that sounds interesting I often add it to my wish list for later consumption. Often months later I will go through the wish list and pick out something that sounds appealing and read it. Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is no exception to this. It's been on my wish list for so long that I have long forgotten what the book is supposed to be about or why I added it there in the first place. But its title just fit my mood at the time of browsing and 10 seconds later it was on my Kindle.

This novel, if it were read by anyone outside computer science profession, would qualify as an excellent page-turning mystery/adventure. For people familiar with coding, Mountain View, or Google, it's a bit like a fun house mirror: it's a reality all distorted to the point of being ludicrous. I don't know whether the author is just unaware of how things work in software industry or he just decided to take a very liberal dramatic license, but yeah, *face-palm*.

Here's a section that happens early in the book that had me in fits and giggles:
"Raj has been at Google a long time," Kat says. We're wandering away from the mess hall. I snagged an extra cookie on the way out, and I'm nibbling on it now. "He's pre-IPO and he was PM for ages."
The acronyms at this place! But I think I know this one. "Wait" -- I'm confused -- "Google has a prime minister?"
"Ha, no," she says. "Product Management. It's a committee. It used to be two people, then it was four, now it's bigger. Sixty-four. The PM runs the company. They approve new projects, assign engineers, allocate resources."
"So these are all the top executives."
"No, that's the thing. It's a lottery. Your name gets drawn and you serve on the PM for twelve months. Anybody could be chosen. Raj, Finn, me. Pepper."
"The chef."
I don't even know where to start with that. If you don't know why the paragraph above has me rolling on the floor laughing, you will enjoy the book a lot. Because the novel itself is quite fun. But the number of absurd things that happen is a little overwhelming. I don't want to spoil anything, but in this book Google makes an executive decision to take all of the servers offline for 3 seconds. All of them. At once. For a fun side-project.

I think I could spend quite a bit of time nit-picking on the technological aspects of the book. Like Google servers stored in containers on a parking lot or Kat (the Googler) using Hadoop. (NB: For those who don't know Hadoop is an open-source clone of MapReduce used at Google). But I will stop at these examples and get back to the actual plot of the novel.

The book starts out with an out-of-job web designer Clay Jannon getting a night clerk job at Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. The bookstore is highly unusual in that it's open at all hours, has almost no customers, and is filled with mysterious old books that Clay is forbidden to open. The books and the bookstore's mysterious owner, Mr. Penumbra, hold a key to a bigger mystery that begins as far as 15th century.

Despite all the technological snafus, I really liked the book and the characters -- all of whom are easily recognizable San Franciscans. The main characters love interest is a female Google engineer. His best friend is a nerd-gone-entrepreneur who made his money selling realistic digital models of boobs. His roommates eat crazy salads and create crazy craft projects in their living room.

The pacing is good and I finished the book fairly quickly and enjoyed the ending very much. I would absolutely recommend this novel to anyone who's ever lived in San Francisco, or thinks books and puzzles are cool, or likes typography. As long as you are willing to overlook some things and fit one of the categories above, you'll probably like it.

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