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The Orchid and the Secret Agent, is a spy thriller published under a pen name, and the other, The Revised, is an unpublished manuscript with the author’s real name on it.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

Landline, by Rainbow Rowell

LandlineI maaay have already mentioned in this space how super in love with Rowell’s novels I am. I haven’t gotten around to Fangirl yet, but you can bet I will very very soon, and then I will be able to say that I absolutely adore everything Rowell has ever published. (Right? Wait, has she written stuff other than novels? Note to self: look into this.)

Because Landline? Is adorable.

Landline is about a TV-industry workaholic (is that redundant? Probably…) called Georgie McCool who finds herself stuck working in LA over Christmas when she’s supposed to be spending the week with her husband and children and in-laws in Nebraska. Her husband, Neal, who has put up with Georgie’s shenanigans long enough, decides to take the kids with him to Nebraska while Georgie stays behind. Between Georgie’s phone’s inability to hold a charge and Neal’s propensity for leaving his phone behind when he wanders off somewhere, she finds it impossible to get a hold of her husband until she drags an old landline phone out of her childhood bedroom closet and calls Neal on his mom’s landline — fifteen years ago.

So yeah, there’s this weird magical conceit where present Georgie is talking to past Neal, who’s living in the week between the last time they had a huge fight and the time that Neal drove all night from Nebraska to propose. Georgie’s not sure if she’s, you know, certifiably insane, or if she’s actually talking to actual Neal and influencing the actual course of events that led to her talking on this phone now. And with all the horribleness happening in Georgie’s present, she’s not sure if she wants that course of events to stay the same.

The story jumps back and forth between Georgie’s present, where her mom is convinced that Georgie’s about to get divorced and she’s convinced she’s losing her mind, and Georgie’s way past, where she meets Neal, becomes infatuated with him, and overcomes more than a few obstacles to snag him as a husband. Fascinatingly, you can see from those flashbacks that Georgie and Neal are kind of a terrible pairing from the beginning, but it’s also obvious that they’re the kind of people who decide what they want and then stick with it and that they want to be together. Which is not something I would like, but whatever floats your boat, I guess?

I love a lot of things about this story, starting with the characters, who are fun and delightful and maybe not always the most realistic of people (unless your mom is like Georgie’s mom, in which case I want to meet her) but nonetheless realistic emotionally. I love the sort-of time-travelling conceit, which gets me absolutely every time. I love that nothing is cut and dried, from the fight at the beginning to the resolution at the end.

It’s not perfect, of course — it is especially full of clichés of grand sweeping gestures and also the beauty and optimism of snow and also the miracle of puppy birth — but it’s pretty darn awesome. My biggest lingering concern after reading this book is that I should probably get my phone fixed or replaced before its battery becomes as unreliable as Georgie’s. I don’t particularly want to find myself talking to people from my past any time soon…

Recommendation: For those looking for a fun read and some reassurance as to the normalcy of their own relationships.

Rating: 9/10