Woman with a Blue Pencil, by Gordon McAlpine

Woman with a Blue PencilI’ve got two words for you: mystery metafiction. If you like either of those words, you’ll probably like this book.

The conceit: this book is set up as if someone has found two manuscripts by an author and some letters sent by his editor and published them together as this new book. One manuscript, The Orchid and the Secret Agent, is a spy thriller published under a pen name, and the other, The Revised, is an unpublished manuscript with the author’s real name on it.

The book starts with the first chapter of The Revised, which is a fairly traditional mystery except that it’s set in 1941 riiiiight before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. And has a Japanese protagonist. And a white villain. And a Japanese author, writing the book at the same time it’s set. So when the US jumps into World War II, well, the book has to change.

The author’s editor sends over a letter saying that the story’s got to change or go, and we can see that he decides on change, as the next bit we get is the first chapter of Orchid, with a completely different writing style, a Korean protagonist, and Japanese antagonists. But meanwhile the author is wondering what might have happened to the protagonist from his first draft, Sam Sumida, and we get the rest of Sam’s story woven throughout this book, and, we find, throughout the new novel as well.

It’s a little complicated to explain, but it reads just fine, with bits of each manuscript and the letters from the editor (the titular woman) trading off easily to form a story far more complex than its parts. You get the main mystery of Orchid, of course, but then you get a sort of science-fictional story in The Revised, as the author chooses to have Sam go into a theater before Pearl Harbor and come out of it afterward into a world where he no longer exists. And of course you get a story about how Americans treated the Japanese after Pearl Harbor, and how they treated anyone vaguely Asian, and how this played out in direct and casual prejudice. And then on top of that you get a sprinkling of the fight between writer and editor to create the best story versus the most sellable story.

This is a really cool book, guys. The stories themselves as written are a little rough, as a consequence of their conceits and of the fact that we don’t actually get a complete story out of either of them, but put together they form something really intriguing. I have a feeling this is not going to be the next blockbuster novel, but if you can get your hands on it it’s a fun, quirky, and short read that is more than worth the time you’ll put into it.

Recommendation: For people who like their books a little thinky and a little weird, but not too much of either.

Rating: 8/10

Welcome to Night Vale, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

Welcome to Night ValeI have mentioned before in this space my love of Welcome to Night Vale, the super weird and wonderful podcast that takes place in a subtly Lovecraftian world where the weirdest and creepiest of things are just another boring day in Night Vale.

If you’ve also been listening to this podcast, even on just a semi-regular basis, you will definitely enjoy this book. If you haven’t been listening, but you like stories that are bizarre and a little creepy and that seem to pluck new details out of thin air, both the podcast and this book are worth a shot.

I think the biggest draw of this book for podcast listeners is that while Cecil and his radio show make appearances in the story, the narrative is led by two Night Vale residents, Jackie and Diane, and we actually get to follow along in their adventures rather than just hearing about how everything was solved during the weather break. Jackie is a 19-year-old pawn shop owner, and has been for decades, and Diane is an office worker and mother to a shape-shifting teenage son. So, completely normal by Night Vale standards.

What is strange for Night Vale is the presence of the man in the tan jacket, who has made appearances on the podcast in the past and who is impossible to remember. But in this story, Diane does remember him, or at least a version of him, and Jackie can’t help but remember the name of his town, King City, which has been written on a note that Jackie is incapable of dropping or even destroying. Also weird is the reappearance of Diane’s ex-boyfriend, Troy, in several places around Night Vale, and his reticence to talk to either Diane or Jackie. Diane is curious and Jackie is obsessive about both Troy and the King City note, and they end up working together to find out what the heck is going on.

I enjoyed reading this book quite a bit, primarily because so much of it has subtle or completely blatant callbacks to the podcast, and because I got to see what the people of Night Vale think of the radio show that I enjoy so much. It’s cute and fun and there’s a whole scene set in the library, the most dangerous place in Night Vale, and how can I not love that? Impossible.

It does get a little slow in places, which is to be expected, I guess, when you turn a half-hour radio show into a 400-page book, but these slow parts had enough bemusement density to see me through. I’m not sure a person brand-new to the show and its concepts would be able to make it quite so easily. But who knows? Stranger things certainly happen in Night Vale.

Recommendation: For fans of the show and of slow-burning Lovecraftian horror.

Rating: 7/10

Ghostly, ed. by Audrey Niffenegger

GhostlyUm, ghost stories? Audrey Niffenegger? I was so obviously sold on this collection, even after I realized that Niffenegger didn’t actually write all the stories in it. There’s one of her stories tucked in there, and she wrote the introduction, and some shorter introductions before each ghost story, so there’s a lot of her in the book, but it’s possibly more awesome that my attachment to Niffenegger has now led me to some other amazing authors.

Now, Niffenegger makes a point at the beginning of the book that it is not diverse or representative but just full of stories that she thinks are cool, which, I mean, okay, I guess, but it’s kind of weird you brought it up, you know? I have not checked the diversity credentials of the authors in this collection, but when it turns out it’s all white dudes and chicks I will not be surprised. If you’ve got a more diverse collection of ghost stories for me, let me know!

But I can see why Niffenegger thinks these stories are cool. The first story in the book is “The Black Cat”, by one Mr. Poe, which I have read several times for fun and school, but every other story in the book was completely new to me. There are some classics, including the Poe and “They”, by Kipling, and then some newer works by Kelly Link and Neil Gaiman. They all have ghosts in common, or sort-of-ghosts, though the best ones, in my opinion, make you sort of doubt whether there are ghosts at all. Uncertainty is weirdly terrifying.

My favorites of the collection: “The Beckoning Fair One”, by Oliver Onions, in which a writer decides to move into part of a strange old house and finds that his writing is completely stymied and his friendships falling apart, and also there are some strange things happening inside the house but surely that’s just a coincidence. Also “Playmates”, by A.M. Burrage, in which some weird dude adopts an orphan as, like, a social experiment, and is kind of disappointed when she makes friends with ghosts, and “The Specialist’s Hat”, by Kelly Link, in which some kids learn the difference between playing Dead and, well, you can probably guess.

I was actually not that excited about Niffenegger’s own story, “Secret Life, with Cats”, but it was one of the ones that lacked any sort of questions or ambivalence, so if you like your ghost stories wrapped up nice and neat you will probably like it very much.

Overall, this is a solid collection, and I will definitely be on the lookout for more from these authors, like that young upstart Poe but also like Link and Onions. I wish my reading experience hadn’t been tainted by that note on diversity, but on the plus side it will make me seek out the collections that have it. There’s still time for more ghost stories this year, right?

Recommendation: For fans of ghosts and stories.

Rating: 7/10

The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood

The Heart Goes LastI’ve been having a lot of fun with Margaret Atwood recently, so when I saw she had a new book coming out I snatched it up right quick. I’m not sure I even read the description, actually, but I figured it couldn’t possibly matter, I was going to enjoy it anyway.

And, of course, I did. I don’t think it was one of Atwood’s greater works, but it will definitely fill any Atwood-shaped holes in your heart.

In this iteration of our future, the world has gone into a serious recession, probably larger than our most recent one but not quite Great Recession. Our two main characters, Stan and Charmaine, are living out of their car and on Charmaine’s meager income, so when Charmaine sees a commercial for a community called Positron that promises stable jobs and housing and life in general, she convinces Stan to apply. They are quickly accepted and make a life in Positron, which turns out to be a community where the residents spend half their time as jailers and half as prisoners, ensuring those stable jobs and making life actually pretty nice for the prisoners. But as in all good dystopian communities things aren’t nearly as happy or well-oiled as they seem.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this story at the start, as the main focus after Stan and Charmaine get accepted to Positron is their failing marriage. Stan is lusting after the woman who lives in his house while he’s off being a prisoner, a woman he’s never met, and Charmaine is lusting and more with that woman’s husband, whom she has totally met. Biblically.

That’s kind of strange, and I was like, um, okay, this is a weird marriage thing to be sure but, like, there’s gotta be something going on in that prison. What terrible things befall those prisoners?? What inhumanities are they subjected to? My priorities are clearly in order.

Luckily for me, this whole marriage thing is just one part of the super weird, and sometimes bad, but mostly weird stuff going on in the prison. There’s the matter of the prisoners who used to populate the prison but have gone more or less mysteriously missing, but also the matter of how Positron keeps its coffers full (spoiler: it’s sex robots). Certain people want to expose the worst parts of the project, but that won’t be easy, and in fact might require an Elvis suit.

Did I mention this book is weird? Good. It’s also weird in that I’m not sure that the central scheme of the novel really holds together, like, even considering this potential future world how exactly is this thing that is happening actually happening? Would these people really do this? Is there not a better way?

I think part of that is that for all I expect amazing world-building from Atwood, there is almost none of that in this book. The characters are quickly cut off from the outside world, sure, but even while in Positron the characters almost never talk about the place of it, just the things that are happening in it. It’s all very murky and strange and I never really found my bearings in the world enough to be able to dive in to the equally baffling plot.

But no matter my troubles, I would still read the phone book written by Atwood because the woman writes killer sentences and has fascinating ideas about the human condition. And she throws in little details, like the Blue Man Group getting knockoff groups in other colors and the genetically modified future of our chicken nuggets, that could so very possibly happen and that steady even this wobbly setting into something possible.

Recommendation: For Atwood lovers, but maybe not newbies. Don’t worry, there are plenty of other novels to start with!

Rating: 7/10

Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings, by Shirley Jackson

Let Me Tell YouI often tell people how much I love Shirley Jackson, what with having read and enjoyed The Haunting of Hill House and having read and LOVED We Have Always Lived in the Castle and, of course, The Lottery. Shirley Jackson! She’s so great! She writes the creepiest things!

If you had told me before I started this new collection of her work that the pieces I would enjoy most would be the ones about her everyday life as a parent and housewife, I would have thought you’d had the wrong Shirley Jackson, is what I’m saying.

Not that there aren’t creepy stories. The book opens with a story called “Paranoia”, in which one Mr. Halloran Beresford is just trying to get home, but he keeps running into and being followed by some weird guy in a hat. Another story, called “Mrs. Spencer and the Oberons”, involves a woman who receives a weird letter, ignores it, and then reaps the consequences. Even some of Jackson’s biographical essays have a spooky sort of slant to them.

But primarily the short stories in this collection are teeny vignettes (a page or two at most) of mundane life, brief peeks into a household or a relationship that require the reader to fill in some of the meaning and importance. Many of these I just did not understand, others I could kind of figure out but wasn’t thrilled with.

The humorous essays are where Jackson shines, especially, as I said before, talking about family and home life. “In Praise of Dinner Table Silence”, “Questions I Wish I’d Never Asked”, “How to Enjoy a Family Quarrel”, “The Pleasures and Perils of Dining Out With Children”… these are all stories I could see being written today, except that they’d be gif-filled BuzzFeed lists and not nearly as hilarious.

Second place in the awesome category, behind those essays, is the title story of the collection, which is only in second place because it’s not actually finished. When I saw the editor’s note that it was only a partial story, I was like, uh, okay, but after reading it I completely understand why it was included. It is the start of a longer story, and is much longer than possibly everything else in the book, and it is kind of beautiful. It’s almost unfair to include it in this book because a) it stands out like a sore thumb as a well-developed longer story amongst a sea of super-short stories and b) all that development comes to naught when the story ends abruptly in the middle of some nice exposition. But I still managed to enjoy it immensely, so I guess it works out?

I highly recommend this collection for fans like me, who have read just a couple wonderful things and haven’t gotten the full spectrum of Jackson’s writings, and for Jackson completists. If you’re a Jackson newbie you should probably stick with her previous story collections or We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which is the best ever.

Rating: 8/10

The End of All Things, Parts 2, 3, and 4

I had intended to read Scalzi’s latest book in novella form, one at a time, and report back here after each one. And I did try, with part one hanging out over here. But then I read part two and got distracted by other things, and then I sat down with part three and ended up reading part four immediately thereafter, and so I’m going to go ahead and lump them all here together. And if you haven’t already obtained these stories, I’m gonna say just wait for the full book release in August, because seriously, you’ll just read them all in one sitting anyway!

Part 2: This Hollow Union

This Hollow UnionYou’d think, after the wham-bam opening of The Life of the Mind, Scalzi might relax a bit, have a quieter interlude, but no, of course not, let’s blow some more stuff up! In this second novella, we go back to the Conclave with our good friend Hafte Sorvalh, who is trying her darndest to steer the Conclave’s leader, General Gau, through like six miles of metaphorical potholed road as the Conclave tries to deal with the problem of having two sets of humans to deal with. For every great plan Sorvalh comes up with, though, a giant wrench is thrown into it in the form of an exploding spaceship or an uncovered conspiracy or a political assassination. Goody.

I like Sorvalh and I like Scalzi’s political machinations, so this was a great story to read. There’s plenty of planning and counter-planning, and even though everything doesn’t work out the way it’s supposed to, things do work out in their own special way by the end. Scalzi also throws some extra world-building into this story, with some background on Sorvalh’s people that is unexpected and fascinating, and with some gender-identity stuff that comes off a little forced but is still pretty neat. Also, bonus cameo by our favorite brain in a box!

Part 3: Can Long Endure

Can Long EndureHere’s the story where Scalzi gets a bit more contemplative, although there’s still plenty of action to go around. This story has a neat structure, with each mini chapter taking place on a different day of the week, though not all the same week because nobody would survive that much excitement. On each of these days, our other good friend Heather Lee is leading a special ops team to fix some problems in the best Colonial-Union style — sneaky and then absurdly showy. Things mostly go well for them until they really really don’t, at which point punching people in the face is definitely the order of the day.

The contemplative part comes from the conversations the team has while they’re not sneaking around or shooting people or threatening to shoot people or whatever, which are comprised mainly of team members being so over all the Colonial Union posturing and wondering why they’re having to do so much of it. The team is ready to carry out their jobs, no problem, but they’re all kind of wishing it wasn’t necessary. It’s a perspective that Scalzi gives most of his characters, to some extent, but it’s different seeing it in the everyday bureaucrats as opposed to this particular strike force.

Part 4: To Stand or Fall

To Stand or FallThinky bits out of the way, this story gets us back to negotiating and making wild, possibly impossible plans and also blowing stuff up, ’cause that’s how you fight a space war, people. This novella nicely wraps up the various threads of conspiracy and subterfuge from the first three and also from the last book, bringing together our favorite diplomats to solve the Earth/Conclave/Colonial Union problem (temporarily, anyway) in as showy a fashion as possible, because that’s how they all do. Why can’t they just be friends, again?

Overall, the four stories of this novel make a great addition to my beloved Old Man’s War universe and a lovely summer read, if you like your summer reads heavy on the sarcasm and the blowing things up. Which apparently I do. I can only hope that Scalzi’s insane book contract involves at least one more foray into this world!

The Philosopher Kings, by Jo Walton

The Philosopher KingsAfter reading The Just City, I was super excited to see what would happen next to my favorite Plato-embracing humans. If you haven’t read The Just City, let me spoil the very end for you: Plato’s thought experiment, not surprisingly, does not translate well to the real (well, “real”) world, and the city falls apart.

This book starts many years and many cities later, as the former residents of the Just City form their own, presumably better versions of the City elsewhere on the island, or, in the case of Kebes, abscond with a ship and run off to who knows where. The cities left on the island are not playing nice with each other, though, and an early art raid leaves my favorite character from the first novel, Simmea, super duper dead. Of our narrators this time, Apollo is distraught, Maia is pragmatic, and Apollo and Simmea’s daughter, Arete, is nearly an adult and eager to make sense of everything that’s going on.

Apollo is pretty sure that Kebes is the culprit in Simmea’s death and also just generally wants to kill the dude, so he and a bunch of other Remnant City (the… remnants of the original City) residents take the other ship and go out on a “diplomatic” mission to explore the area and maybe perhaps find and kill Kebes. What they find, generally, is the world as it actually was at the time without Athene’s intervention, which depresses them all rather a lot. When they do find Kebes’s contingent, things seem at first pretty darn good for them and for the people they are helping, but life in their cities is certainly not as Plato imagined.

Where the first book focused on the benefits of and problems with the Just City in terms of an actual functioning Just City, this book takes a look at how slight tweaks to the formula create completely different cities in composition and demeanor. And where the first book’s Apollo was trying to figure out the equality of women especially with regards to rape, this second volume has Apollo sort of floundering for a reason to keep existing as a mortal after the death of his favorite mortal companion. It’s not a terribly different novel, but it covers enough new ground to make things interesting.

Well, most of the novel is not terribly different, except for the ending, which is deus ex to the extreme in a story that had previously kept a slow, constant pace of developing and solving problems. I get that what happens probably eventually had to happen, and that it would, probably, happen just that quickly, but it’s jarring nonetheless and also it doesn’t make a lot of sense. But hey, gods and their whims, right?

I was sure that this must be a two-book series with the way this one ended, but apparently there is another book coming, and I am totally in for reading it if only to figure out what happened at the end of this one! At the very least, the new setting will be absolutely fascinating…

Recommendation: Read The Just City first, of course, and if you like that you’ll definitely want to continue on to this one.

Rating: 8/10