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The Orchid and the Secret Agent, is a spy thriller published under a pen name, and the other, The Revised, is an unpublished manuscript with the author’s real name on it.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

Guards! Guards!, by Terry Pratchett

Guards! Guards!I’ve vaguely known about Terry Pratchett and Discworld for years, but was never really interested in reading any of it. Then my brother’s girlfriend started showing up to family events with her nose buried in a Pratchett book, a new one for every event, and since I generally trust her opinions I figured I’d give the guy a try. So when I found myself in one of my favorite Cleveland bookstores with some time to kill, I picked the one that sounded most interesting and it came home with me.

And apparently I was lucky in my book choice! According to the bro’s girlfriend you don’t have to read the series in publication order, but you should read the individual storylines in order, and this book is the first in the “City Watch” storyline. Good work, self! If you are of another mind about how to read Discworld (I hear there are many of these minds), well, oops?

So, anyway, back to this particular book… Guards! Guards! is a weird little story that is part miniature epic fantasy novel and part commentary on epic fantasy novels. It reminds me a bit of Redshirts, except without a weird and headache-causing twist in the middle. I’m not super well versed in classic fantasy, but I knew enough about swords and magic and DRAGONS to get me through this one!

‘Cause see, there’s a Brotherhood of… Something… whose leader decides it’s totes time for change in city leadership, so he summons up a dragon to come kill a few people here and there so that the leader can bring in a ringer to be the long-lost rightful heir to the throne of said city, Ankh-Morpork, and then have lots of power or whatever. As you do. But there is also a bumbling sort of police force called the City Watch who are usually just for show, but with the addition of an officer who has actually read the book of laws they end up investigating the whole “appearance of a heretofore imaginary dragon” thing. There’s also a whole bunch of other stuff that happens, including the theft of a book from a library which leads to some fantastic quotes about libraries and bookstores and magic and whatnot, so that’s awesome.

And really, I think those quotable lines, of which there are many, are what this book is about. The plot is pretty simple and straightforward, but it is not shy about dashing off on a tangent for the sake of a joke or even a pun. I approve, and I approve also of Pratchett’s ability to use fantasy clichés to alternately advance the story (e.g. this is how things work in fantasy novels, so therefore this thing works) and to completely derail it (e.g. this is how things work in fantasy novels, too bad this is actually real life!) — sometimes using the same cliché to both ends!

I found this book “reasonably amusing” (to quote myself) and a perfect sort of brain-candy read, and I will definitely pick up another Pratchett book in the future, if I can ever figure out which one should come next!

Recommendation: For fans of British humor (i.e. Douglas Adams, Monty Python) and fantasy novels and satire and fun.

Rating: 7/10

Redshirts, by John Scalzi

RedshirtsLet’s start this review off with some high praise from my husband, Scott, from earlier this week: “I think we may have to buy this book, because I already want to read it again.”

Add that to the constant quoting of humorous lines and the exclamations of “That totally happened on that one episode of Star Trek I just watched!” (he’s working his way through Voyager on Netflix), and I’m pretty sure this book is a winner.

So, easy summary: if you are currently watching old episodes of Star Trek, or just have them memorized, or just kind of like things that are related to the ST universe in some way, you’re going to like this book.

Now personally, I fall in the last category up there. I’ve watched tons of Star Trek thanks to my mother’s love of it, but I remember only broad details. And based on what I overhear when Scott’s watching it, I think that’s for the best. So when I started reading Redshirts, it was similarly painful to watching Star Trek. The book is a send-up of the show and those that copied it, so necessarily the crew members have incredibly weird and nonsensical and scientifically inaccurate things happen to them, and I was often like, really?

But the book is also completely meta and the characters are more or less aware that weird and nonsensical and scientifically inaccurate things are happening to them. Sometimes this conceit works, sometimes it doesn’t, but definitely the whole time I was thinking, “How is Scalzi going to pull this off?”

It’s hard to say anything about the novel proper without spoiling that mood for you, so I’m going to move on to the three short stories that follow the novel and which I thought were the best parts of the book after the novel’s last chapter. Best chapter ever? Possibly.

Anyway, the stories — I had just listened to a Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast in which they talked about minor characters getting their own spinoffs (you should totally give it a listen), which made these stories feel serendipitous. Each stars, if you will, a different minor character from the novel dealing with the novel’s aftermath, and they are quite beautifully done. One is humorous and references Jasper Fforde so therefore 10 points to it, the next is more serious and questioning, and the last maybe made me cry a little bit, but I’ll cry at almost anything so don’t worry about that. 🙂 Also, they are titled, in order, “First Person,” “Second Person,” and “Third Person,” and the number of meanings you can wring out of those titles is brilliant.

Recommendation: See above; also probably for those who liked the weirdness of Scalzi’s Agent to the Stars and The Android’s Dream.

Rating: 8/10