January 11, 2013


A Novel by Robin Sloan
288 Pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review by: J. S. Colley

If you are a bibliophile, techno-geek, and lover of puzzles, then this book is for you.

The protagonist, Clay, has lost his job at NewBagel because of the recession. He’s desperate for new employment. At first, he sets his sights high—he’ll only work for a company with a mission he believes in, but he finally settles on it “just not being evil.” Out for a walk, he finds a help-wanted sign:

“Whenever I walked the streets of San Francisco, I’d watch for help wanted signs in the windows—which is not something you really do, right? I should probably be more suspicious of those. Legitimate employers use Craigslist.”

He lands a job as midnight-shift clerk at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. The store doesn’t get many visitors, but those who do come during the wee hours are strange indeed.

One thing leads to another and soon Clay is entangled in the mystery of the shop, specifically the mystery of the “Waybacklist”—what he calls the books housed on the high shelves in the back of the store—and the people who come to check them out. 

I found the writing to be delightful: cleverly written by someone who is knowledgeable of computer tech and who also loves books and words. There’s so much subtle humor (for some reason, I’m not a big fan of in-your-face humor books), I had a smile on my face almost the entire time I was reading.

As a used-to-be programmer, I found this riff on computer languages amusing, especially the part about C, since that’s the code I most often used:

Normal written languages have different rhythms and idioms, right? Well, so do programming languages. The language called C is all harsh imperatives, almost raw computer-speak. The language called Lisp is like one long, looping sentence, full of subclauses, so long in fact that you usually forget what it was even about in the first place. The language called Erlang is just like sounds: eccentric and Scandinavian. …

But Ruby, my language of choice since NewBagel, was invented by a cheerful Japanese programmer, and it reads like friendly, accessible poetry. Billy Collins by way of Bill Gates.”

I love it!

There are so many clever lines and so many, if not big, then interesting ideas presented in the book. Like what the year 3012 might look like, and how it might develop:

“‘Each big idea like this is an operating system upgrade….Writers are responsible for some of it. They say Shakespeare invented the internal monologue.… But I think writers had their turn…and now it’s programmers who get to upgrade the human operating system.’”

As Clay is pulled deeper into solving the mystery of the Waybacklist, he engages the unique talents of everyone from his new roommate, his longtime high-school buddy, who’s on his way to making it big in the tech world, and a new girlfriend who works at Google—affectionately called a “googler”—to help him in his quest.

I read a few reviews of this book before deciding to purchase it, and some reviewers were disappointed in the ending. I wish I hadn’t read these reviews because I wonder if I didn’t have them in the back of my mind. (Should I be disappointed in this ending?) After a little contemplating, I decided I was perfectly happy with it. Because it was a real-life ending—because, while there were mysteries and puzzles and odd secret societies, there were not any elements of magical realism, so why should the end of the novel be something the rest of the book is not?

All I can say is I was eager to keep reading this book—something that happens more rarely than I’d like to admit as of late. And I wasn’t disappointed in how it ended, I was just sorry it did.

1 comment:

  1. The buildup was too big for the ending. With all the technology included, it seemed that the ending would be more significant. Good story, but not as intense as it would seem.

    Zaira Lynn (Skagway)