Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Gibson meets Fforde

The Word ExchangeThe Word Exchange by Alena Graedon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dear reader, I wanted to hate this book—in addition to the first person narration, it’s a concept book! Word flu. Alice in Wonderland. And a nerdy romance. I thought it was all going to be too twee. Here’s part of the setup:

“In the not-so-distant future, the forecasted “death of print” has become a reality. Bookstores, libraries, newspapers, and magazines are things of the past, and we spend our time glued to handheld devices called Memes that not only keep us in constant communication but also have become so intuitive that they hail us cabs before we leave our offices, order takeout at the first growl of a hungry stomach, and even create and sell language itself in a marketplace called the Word Exchange.”

The publisher wants to call it a thriller, hoping to capitalize on the similarity of theme to Lexicon, I guess. Think more along the lines of Gibson’s Pattern Recognition as written by Jasper Fforde, and you’ll be closer.  There’s a likability and camaraderie that shines through, instead of tension. This is no one’s idea of science fiction, and it’s not reality, either. Hello, speculative fiction: near-future, possibly; parallel earth, possibly; parable of a pandemic, metaphor of society, possibly. Here we go. Let’s call speculative fiction what highlights the possible, and science fiction what makes the possible probable.

There are faults in the book (slow start, inelegant transitions, horrible footnotes), but Miss Em has forgiven all because of the love of language, the weft and weave of words—the virtual bricks of the memory palace we call reality—the lilt and tilt of Graedon’s words and thought. In other words, I ended up having fun, and look forward to playing again. Recommended.

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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Better than a cruise vacation

Miss Em is so excited about this book, she needs the objectivity of the third person to contain her excitement lest she put you off like an over-eager host. I loved it, dear reader.  And I must ask you not to start the book before an important project, like a cruise, because, dear reader, Miss Em snarled every moment she was forced to put the book down for some foolishness like sail-away parties, balcony dining, stunning ocean views, or any of that rot. Thank God I finished it before the Dom Perignon came along! But Miss Em believes this book is destined to be a classic, too. The publisher’s copy cannot do what Ms. Addison does, drawing you heart and soul into both her world and her characters. Here’s an excerpt, much more revealing than the plot blurb from the publisher:

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
News Comes to Edonomee
Maia woke with his cousin’s cold fingers digging into his shoulder.
“Cousin? What…” He sat up, rubbing at his eyes with one hand. “What time is it?”
“Get up!” Setheris snarled. “Hurry!”
Obediently, Maia crawled out of bed, clumsy and sleep-sodden. “What’s toward? Is there a fire?”
“Get thy clothes on.” Setheris shoved yesterday’s clothes at him. Maia dropped them, fumbling with the strings of his nightshirt, and Setheris hissed with exasperation as he bent to pick them up. “A messenger from the court. That’s what’s toward.”
“A message from my father?”
“Is’t not what I said? Merciful goddesses, boy, canst do nothing for thyself? Here!” He jerked the nightshirt off, caring neither for the knotted strings nor for Maia’s ears, and shoved his clothes at him again. Maia struggled into drawers, trousers, shirt, and jacket, aware that they were wrinkled and sweat-stained, but unwilling to try Setheris’s ill temper by saying so. Setheris watched grimly by the single candle’s light, his ears flat against his head. Maia could not find his stockings, nor would Setheris give him time to search. “Come along!” he said as soon as Maia had his jacket fastened, and Maia followed him barefoot out of the room, noticing in the stronger light that while Setheris was still properly and fully attired, his face was flushed. So he had not been wakened from sleep by the emperor’s messenger, but only because he had not yet been to bed. Maia hoped uneasily that Setheris had not drunk enough metheglin to mar the glossy perfection of his formal court manners.
Maia ran his hands through his hair, fingers catching on knots in his heavy curls. It would not be the first time one of his father’s messengers had witnessed him as unkempt as a half-witted ragpicker’s child, but that did not help with the miserable midnight imaginings: So, tell us, how looked our son? He reminded himself it was unlikely his father ever asked after him in the first place and tried to keep his chin and ears up as he followed Setheris into the lodge’s small and shabby receiving room.
The messenger was maybe a year or so older than Maia himself, but elegant even in his road-stained leathers. He was clearly full-blooded elvish, as Maia was not; his hair was milkweed-pale, and his eyes the color of rain. He looked from Setheris to Maia and said, “Are you the Archduke Maia Drazhar, only child of Varenechibel the Fourth and Chenelo Drazharan?”
“Yes,” Maia said, bewildered.
And then bewilderment compounded bewilderment, as the messenger deliberately and with perfect dignity prostrated himself on the threadbare rug. “Your Imperial Serenity,” he said.
“Oh, get up, man, and stop babbling!” Setheris said. “We understood that you had messages from the Archduke’s father.”
“Then you understand what we do not,” the messenger said, rising again to his feet, as graceful as a cat. “We bear messages from the Untheileneise Court.”
Maia said hastily, merely to prevent the altercation from escalating, “Please, explain.”
“Your Serenity,” the messenger said. “The airship Wisdom of Choharo crashed yesterday, sometime between sunrise and noon. The Emperor Varenechibel the Fourth, the Prince Nemolis, the Archduke Nazhira, and the Archduke Ciris were all on board. They were returning from the wedding of the Prince of Thu-Athamar.”
“And the Wisdom of Choharo crashed,” Maia said slowly, carefully.
“Yes, Serenity,” said the messenger. “There were no survivors.”

Obviously, there’s going to be plenty of plot here, and it is deftly handled. No horribly dangling loose ends, but plenty of room for a sequel (please, please!). Lovely world-building; I would call it somewhat Tolkienesque with an Asian touch, just to help you orient yourself—this is a fully original world. (The pronunciation guide is at the back of the book, btw, but the archaic forms do not grate, I promise.) It’s the story of a poor orphan boy elevated to a king, trying to live his values. Now that Maia is king, will he heap upon his former guardian the abuse he deserves? What or who caused the airship to crash? Can he find love, or at least friendship, in an arranged marriage? Can he ever trust anyone, or will he always be as alone as he has been since his mother died? Can and should the artificers build a bridge across the great river? Will anyone at court ever appreciate him like we, the readers, do?

Why does Miss Em think this book deserves “classic” status? The book satisfies on all levels. Beautifully written descriptions and dialogue engage the heart and the mind and the soul in the real lives and dilemmas of the characters. The book’s themes are power, poverty, and compassion—and it doesn’t preach. Miss Em loves it because it is like The Secret Garden in its tenderness and philosophy, and like Siddhartha and The Glass Bead Game in its complexity and spirituality.

Miss Em received an e-galley through the publisher and Netgalley, but has ordered the hardcopy to start her collection of Ms. Addison’s books, next to Michelle Sagara West, Modesitt, Diana Wynne Jones, Tamora Pierce, Miller & Lee, and the other authors in her permanent library. She has assumed the copyright permission. She hopes you will buy it, love it, and gift it, too.

Ahhh, Venice!

By Its Cover (Commissario Brunetti, #23)By Its Cover by Donna Leon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Each of Donna Leon’s books is a singular pleasure: a mix of cynicism and good-heartedness; an excursion to the sights, smells, and tastes of Venice; a peek into a happy marriage and family. And of course, because we are beset with crime and bureaucracy, an exercise in both passion and futility.
A theme of her previous book (The Golden Egg) was the power of living language and its gifts, unto possibly defining humanity. A theme of this book is language as history, as artifact, as text. Part of the pleasure of reading Leon is this mix of abstract, intellectual pleasure and the concrete, sensual pleasures of life.

In By Its Cover, Brunetti is called to a library he has not been to since his college days; rare books have been stolen, some defaced (pages cut out & taken) and left in place. It all seems to be the fault of the visiting American scholar, discovered to be a fake. But does the attack on one of the library’s patrons mean there is more going on?
As usual, it’s a leisurely journey to the heart of the mystery, with Brunetti and Paola’s father, the Count, reaching a new accommodation after twenty years; a new relationship appearing for Signorina Elettra; the usual vignettes of home life; and Venice, dear Venice, sinking even faster thanks to the cruise ships.

Recommended for fans. I recommend starting early in the series, for those who haven’t read them, since one of the major pleasures of the series is following the Brunetti family over the passage of time.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the EARC for review!

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