Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Book reviews: Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore and Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures

Mr. Penumbra;s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Our hero, Clay, a graphic artist and fan of a fantasy series, stumbles upon a bizarre, narrow bookstore in San Francisco and lands a job as a night clerk. There, he encounters a trickle of bizarre customers who seem only to trade books rather than buy them. Through his connections to his roommates, a childhood friend and a cute girl who stumbles in the store, Clay embarks on a quest to solve the riddles posed by these mysterious volumes and the store's owner, Mr. Penumbra. The novel combines the complexity of contemporary computing with a love for books; the novel represents an elaborate puzzle, and we join Clay in the pursuit of the solution. Overall, the novel is short and entertaining; a job at Google and thirst for immortality give Clay's girlfriend depth beyond the SF manic-pixie dream girl we expect. The novel deals with the whole inforg issue in a roundabout way -- how old knowledge can be sought and informed by the massive abilities of computer-based information processing as well as the human imagination. Everything ties together. If the riddle at the center of the novel isn't quite as mysterious or interesting as the riddles in other examples of the genre (think Shadow of the Wind, The Thirteenth Tale or The Magician King), nevertheless you still enjoy getting there.

Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures by Emma Straub

Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures is almost too nice -- a sweet story about a pretty Wisconsin farm girl named Elsa whose dad runs a summer theater. After a family death that resonates throughout the novel, Elsa grows up, marries a visiting actor, moves to Los Angeles and gets discovered while she's pregnant at a studio party. The complications resulting from the encounter, including getting a new name(Laura Lamont)involve how she navigates between her old and new identities, how she interacts with her children and how she ends up "married" to the studio. Straub uses focused third person to present her rise, fall and rise from her own point of view, as she weaves between tragedy and comedy and she watches a fellow actress named Ginger (based loosely on Lucille Ball) succeed in comedy.

I kept wondering what the spine of the novel is -- it's not rigidly feminist (which is good) nor anti-Hollywood (she makes her own mistakes and even benefits at times from the studio system). Straub captures to a certain degree the magic of acting in movies and the vagaries of being an aging actress in the 1940s and '50s. She plumbs Laura's emotions and explores in a great deal of depth the duality of her identity. But some of the characters, particularly the studio executive Irving Green, seem brought in from central casting. As Hollywood novels go, this one has a sympathetic and likable central character, but perhaps a bit more bile and mayhem might have added some spark.

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