Monday, April 21, 2014

The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon has a fascinating premise. In the near future, the printed word is all but dead. Nearly everyone in the U.S. has a device called a Meme. Even better than a Smartphone, Memes intuit what their owners need. Need a cab? Your Meme will hail one before you even realize it. Searching for a word? Your Meme will quickly find it for you on the Word Exchange, for only a few cents per word.

Then people start showing signs of the Word Flu – using nonsense words instead of real ones, to the point where they can’t be understood. A powerful company has been buying up the rights to all the English words in the world, so Meme users have to pay more each time their Memes find a word for them. Copies of the last print edition of a great American dictionary are being burned; pretty soon the only place to look up words will be the Word Exchange. That and the Oxford English Dictionary, the lone holdout against greedy corporate interests.

Although I have a Smartphone, I do worry about the influence of digital devices and social media on our lives. When one goes out for a meal with family or friends, one or more of the people present are constantly checking their devices. Studies show autocomplete functions when we text or write are changing the way we communicate, as many people are too lazy to find the word they mean and accept the generic word everyone is using instead.

This book certainly taps into my own fears about what is happening in society. The author of a paper put out by the book’s word "underground resistance” writes, “Our facility for reflection has dimmed, taking with it our skill for deep and unfettered thinking.” (p. 85) I’ve had this thought myself, and ranted the following along with one of the characters:
As a nation, we’ve been practicing mass production since before World War II. We believed wastefulness would morph, by magic, into wealth. That if we created enough disposable products, it would help fire consumerism. And it did, for a while. But here’s a dirty secret: resources are finite. Waste enough, and eventually it’s all used up. (p. 345)

The Word Exchange is broken into 26 chapters, one for each of the letters in the English alphabet. Each chapter starts with a word and a definition. Although I loved the concept of this book, it’s not perfect. I had a very hard time following some plot points. There are two narrators, and one of them is suffering from the Word Flu. His chapters are filled with nonsense words, which got old very fast. But the book has a satisfying ending, and I recommend it to other readers interested in where technology is taking us. If you enjoyed Ready Player One, Amped, or A Working Theory of Love, you might enjoy The Word Exchange.

I read an advance reader copy of The Word Exchange. It was published on April 8, 2014. It can be found at the Galesburg Public Library in the NEW fiction area under the author’s last name.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente

Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente is an interesting take on the Snow White fairy tale. Snow White is given her name ironically by her evil, magical stepmother, as Snow White is half white, half Crow Indian. Her mother was a Crow woman named Gun That Sings who was forced into marrying one of the richest men in the west.

After trying to kill herself, Gun That Sings died in childbirth anyway. Mr. H treats his daughter like a doll, one locked away so that no one realizes he has a half-breed daughter. When she is 11, her father marries again. The new Mrs. H brings with her a fascinating, terrible, magical mirror. Under the guise of “love” she tries through abuse to civilize and whiten the child she calls Snow White. Snow recalls, “Mrs. H called me something new. She named me cruel and smirking, she named me not for beauty or for cleverness or for sweetness. She named me a thing I could aspire to but never become, the one thing I was not and could never be: Snow White.” (p. 37)

Eventually Snow runs away on her horse Charming and the fairy tale plays out. Elements of the original exist – a man who is a Pinkerton follows after Snow to bring her heart back to Mrs. H. Seven outlaw women, not dwarves, save Snow when she arrives in the town of Oh-Be-Joyful. Apples come into the story at various places. Snow eventually ends up in a glass case.

I enjoyed Six-Gun Snow White. Valente puts her own interesting spin on the tale of Snow White by combining it with imagery of the Old West. One phrase resonates throughout the text: “It looked like a choice but it wasn’t.” There are some lovely passages.

 The author comes through the narration as a little smug and self-satisfied with her own cleverness, and I feel the book would have been stronger if it had ended before the last chapter. I still recommend it to anyone interested in alternate fairy tales or Native American mythology.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Stranger You Know by Jane Casey

The Stranger You Know is the fourth book in the Maeve Kerrigan police procedural series from Jane Casey, and I think it may be the best so far. The first book was a great start, but seemed a bit clich├ęd, and there was a lot of introductory material. The second and third were even better, with a lot of character development and a more complex case.

The pacing of The Stranger You Know is terrific – I had a hard time putting the book down. The narrative is a great blend of character development and action. I really wanted to know what would happen next, both with the crime and the regular characters.

Maeve Kerrigan is a Detective Constable with some complicated relationships. She is commitment shy but in a relationship with another cop, a terrific guy who is not afraid to say “I love you” even though Maeve won’t reply in turn. Rob is out of the country on a work-related trip most of this book, so the focus is not on their romance but on Maeve’s relationship with coworkers.

Maeve has Irish parents but works in London, and as a woman in a male-dominated field, she feels like an outsider. She started out hero-worshipping her boss, Chief Superintendent Godley (know as “God” around the office), but has since found out some things about him that sent him tumbling off the pedestal. She could get him fired, and he knows it; although she keeps his secrets, her knowledge affects her interactions with him. She is often paired with Detective Inspector Josh Derwent, who comes off as a jerk and a misogynistic pig. In The Stranger You Know, we get to know Derwent a lot better. He is taken off a case and isn’t happy about it. There is a serial killer in London, and Derwent was the prime suspect in a similar case 20 years before. Maeve and Derwent spend a lot of time together in this book, in challenging situations that force them to get to know each other better.

We are thrown a lot of red herrings, but I expect that in a mystery series. The investigation moves relentlessly on, with Maeve right in the middle, disobeying orders and taking unlikely sides. There’s a plot twist at the end that will no doubt play into future books in the series. I can’t wait.

If you like British police procedurals and well-paced crime thrillers with lots of character development, I recommend Jane Casey. Although one could pick up The Stranger You Know without having read the first three, I recommend starting with The Burning.

I read an advance reader copy provided by Netgalley. The Stranger You Know will be published in the U.S. in late May. (However, the Galesburg Public Library owns the first three already!)