I rather like the goth tone of this line of fragrances from Sweet Tea Apothecary, and after reading the fragrance notes for these scents, I do actually want to smell like a dead writer.  Or like one of her settings.  Or both.

The Dead Writers line includes Beatrix and Pemberley, Lenore and Dead Writers, and I’m dying to get my hands on some samples.  Ever since finding Christopher Brosius’s Room with a View, inspired by a passage from the E. M. Forster novel, I’ve often found myself thinking about how to bottle book settings.  Pemberley sounds just perfect for spring.


murderA Murder of Magpies

by Judith Flanders

2015: St. Martin’s Press, New York.

It’s March Break, which means pajama days, which means days to read for hours on end.

I curled up this morning with a find from Ben McNally Books, where I never fail to find an Anglophilic read, and even better, one I’ve not yet heard of.

A Murder of Magpies is a murder mystery by Judith Flanders, best known for her work on Victorian lives and times.  Her award-winning The Invention of Murder examined how the Victorians turned what was actually a rare crime into ubiquitous press and entertainment.

Flanders’s own foray into the murder mystery genre is set in London, and its protagonist, Samantha Clair, is an editor at a publishing firm housed in a draughty building and staffed by bright young things who are not so bright.  She scorns fashion, believes passionately in the value of her work, is cheerfully independent, funny and she is sexy.  When she asks one of the powerful men in the story to account for why he had wanted to help her, he replies

“You have balls.”  He looked at me as though he’d just paid me a compliment.  Of course, in his mind, he had.  I’d just never wanted balls.  Silly me.

Sam won my heart early in the book when she described her days: they are long, they start early, and only occasionally with a run:

There are supposed to be endorphins or whatever that make you feel great when you exercise.  I don’t think I have any, because I only feel great when I’m lying on the sofa reading a book, possibly while simultaneously eating biscuits.  That’s why I work in publishing, not athletics.

Sam is about to publish a tell-all about the crimes and misdemeanours in a large fashion house, when the book’s author and her friend, Kit, goes missing.  DI Jake Field comes to her office to ask about the death of a bike courier who was carrying a copy of the manuscript, and although he is at first dismissive of her concern about Kit’s whereabouts, things soon heat up on the action and attraction front.  Sam’s mother is a very well-connected lawyer who completes the detecting trio, and together they take us through a quick and very pleasurable read.

The book was riddled with improbabilities.  No way would the detective on the case tell Sam so much.  No way would a veteran editor but rookie crime-solver investigate and solve the crimes inside a fortnight.  Now way is Sam’s mother so well connected.  None of it mattered.  I was completely willing to suspend disbelief because Sam is a hard-working, book-loving, feminist spark, and I loved her.  I also loved the casual way in which she falls into a relationship with Jake in which neither of them play the other or get caught up in games.  She’s just so smart in so many ways, and I loved her company.

The book was published in England as Writer’s Block.  Neither title works particularly well; there was no case of writer’s block, nor was there a discussion of collective nouns involving death, more’s the pity, but since it’s the story that counts, the titles are neither here nor there.  The good news from England is that there will be more.  A Bed of Scorpions will be published in England this week.  Even better, it’s a campus novel.  It’s ticks each and every one of the boxes in my list of highly desirables, and I will be on the lookout this time when it does cross the pond.

Favourite Books of 2014  

How to Be a Heroine

Samantha Ellis

How to Be Both

Ali Smith

How to Build a Girl

Caitlin Moran

[Perhaps this list should be called Favourite Books That Begin with How!!]

Among Others

Jo Walton


Elizabeth McCracken

Boy, Snow, Bird

Helen Oyeyemi

The Goldfinch

Donna Tartt

Station Eleven

Emily St. John Mandel


Max Barry

Tenth of December

George Saunders

The Victoria Vanishes

Christopher Fowler

Best Books About Books

How to Be a Heroine

Samantha Ellis

This is the story of Samantha Ellis looking for a role model in the heroines of books she read as a child and young woman.  I adored every page.  Not only did this book entertain and delight from beginning to end, Ellis sent me back to the books she discusses, prolonging the enjoyment, engaging me for weeks.


Max Barry

A fascinating fantasy of how the brain and its operations might be compromised by a person in possession of the right words to override the brain’s normal operating system, the right words being a proto-language with enormous power.   A mysterious society of “poets,” led by the nefarious Yeats, recruits people who have a natural gift of persuasion, then trains them in the use of secret words that can control others’ behaviour.  Some of these recruits get out of hand.  Thrills ensue. Delightfully inventive, this book reminded me a lot of The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman because the new recruits have to work really hard at mastering this magical ability.

Among Others

Jo Walton

My second read, after reading her book about her favourite SF and Fantasy books, What Makes This Book So Great? I think her fiction is more persuasive than her prose at persuading me which SF and Fantasy to pick up and try.  This book is absolutely full to the brim with love for the books of both the author’s and the protagonist’s youth.

Lost for Words

Edward St. Aubyn

Biting satire about a jury for a book prize.

Script & Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting

Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog

Kitty Burns Florey

I love how the author combines autobiography with history in these books about handwriting and sentence diagramming.  Thoroughly entertaining reads.

The Murdstone Trilogy

Mal Peet

I laughed a lot while reading this satirical metafictional adult novel about an author of young adult fiction who is struggling with writer’s block.  He makes a pact with the devil to get out of it.  The dialogue with the devil in question is so wonderfully inventive, and his voice single-handedly makes the book.  Chapter Two, in which Philip Murdstone’s agent spells out exactly how to write a successful Phantasy novel, with a P Haitch, had me in stitches.  My only criticism is that sometimes the humour was too earthy.  Toilet humour does not do it for me.

Best Interviews with Authors

from The Guardian Books Podcast

Ali Smith

How to Be Both

Isabel Greenberg

Encyclopedia of Early Earth

James Frey


Eleanor Wachtel interviewing

P.D. James

Colm Toibin

Ali Smith

Others Raved and So Did I

The Goldfinch

Donna Tartt

My favourite thing about Tartt’s abilities as a writer is how she manages to depict characters from extraordinary privilege who find themselves utterly powerless to control their own lives.

Tenth of December

George Saunders

This made many best of lists for 2013, and I did not catch up until this year.

Did Not Have High Hopes, But It Was a Surprisingly Good Read

We’ll Always Have Paris

Jennifer Coburn

This book was sent to me for review for my parenting blog, and I really did not have high hopes but ended up reading it in one sitting.  It’s a memoir of a mother-daughter trip to Paris, and the narrating mother is a control freak who learns to let go and be mindful in the extraordinary moments of travel and discovery.

In Praise of Messy Lives

Katie Roiphe

We are not supposed to like her because she blamed date rape on women in The Morning After.  She’s an obnoxious cross between Margaret Wente and Leah McLaren, but she’s whip smart and in very good form in this collection of essays.  I enjoyed them all.


The Opposite of Loneliness

Marina Keegan

Anne Fadiman blurbed it, praising it highly.  She was Keegan’s instructor at Yale, and when Keegan died in a car crash, this collection of essays and short fiction was published posthumously.  I found the collection to be too spotty and felt that the promise she obviously had is not adequately showcased here.


Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

The series written by this couple became the ur-texts for police procedurals.  The problem with going back to the ur-text after having read a lot of police procedurals, is that the original can feel stale and half-formed.

Howl’s Moving Castle

Diana Wynne-Jones

I read it aloud to the kids, and it was a bit of a slog.  I had such high hopes, but we all found it just too disjointed.


Diana Gabaldon

A case of “it’s not you, it’s me.”  Historical fiction and time travel just do not often work for me.  But this book does stand out for one of the best exchanges I read all year.  The time-travelling (and married) Claire is about to be married off to a hottie in the past:

“Does it bother you that I’m not a virgin?” He hesitated a moment before answering. “Well, no,” he said slowly, “so long as it doesna bother you that I am.” He grinned at my drop-jawed expression, and backed toward the door. “Reckon one of us should know what they’re doing,” he said.


John Williams

Again, it’s not you, it’s me.  I don’t like passive characters whose fates flow over them.

Elizabeth is Missing

Emma Healy

Transparent from the beginning.

Must Read Everything Authors

(with thanks to Buried in Print for the category)


Alan Bradley

His latest Flavia de Luce mystery, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, confirmed that Flavia is a sleuth to love.  I wait obsessively for the next books to come out.


Helen Oyeyemi

Boy, Snow, Bird kept me on the edge of my seat.  I had to track down all her other books after reading it.

Ali Smith

I loved How to Be Both so much that I did not pick this book for my book club choice; I did not want to hear anyone disagree with me about how absolutely wonderful it is.  I re-read First Person, then went out to get all her other books.  I read Hotel World and The Accidental as soon as I could get my hands on them.

Elizabeth McCracken

New to me with Thunderstruck, and so wonderful was it that I had to have more.

Mysteries to Fall For

The Word Exchange

Alena Graedon

Humans begin to lose the ability to speak because of a deliberately-released virus.  A gripping bibliophilic thriller.

Northanger Abbey

Val McDermid

She rewrites Austen’s classic by substituting vampire fiction for the gothic novel.  Hilarious, timely and pitch-perfect.

The Victoria Vanishes

Christopher Fowler

I can’t remember how I found him, but I did something very unusual for me and began his series of Bryant and May and the Peculiar Crimes Unit books in the middle, with The Victoria Vanishes, and fell head over heels in love.  In addition to being very well plotted, with well-rounded characters, it’s chock full of trivia about London’s pubs.  Other books in the series deal with London’s underground tunnels and theaters.  Fascinating reads for both the whodunit and the trivia.

Young Adult  

Half Bad

Sally Green

Half Bad is all good.  Harry Potter and Twilight meet Divergent.  I think the guilty pleasure of reading these books is the good vs evil plot, the clearly drawn lines.  The protagonist, though, does not know what he will be, White or Black witch.  He exposes the hypocrisy of the first, and is seduced by the mystery of the second.  So, not so black and white after all.

We Were Liars

E. Lockhart

A loose retelling of the story of King Lear and his daughters.  The narrator spends her summers on the family island off of Martha’s Vineyard with her grandparents, aunts and cousins.  She has an accident and cannot remember the events around it.  The novel is her piecing it all together with a great twist at the end.

Blood Red Road, Rebel Heart and Raging Star

Moira Young

I’ll say right from the start that the narrative voice annoyed the hell out of me (first person, present tense narration in the drawl of a cowboy: nuthin, haveta), but once past that, I found this Canadian trilogy gripping.  Strong female characters in a post-apocalyptic world.  I loved that the women are so strong, although, in the end, there does seem something of a patriarchal, hetero-normative resolution.  Not entirely, but I was getting a bit uncomfortable with the excessive use of the word “family.”

Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Liani Taylor

Jenny recommended this, and I loved this, the first in a trilogy about angels and demons.  The world building is so assured and the eroticism is simply pulsing.  I found the next two disappointing, however.

Fabulous Nonfiction

The Perfect Scent

Chandler Burr

Burr is the first curator of olfactory art at MOMA, a position he created for himself with a view to encouraging the growth of a body of intelligent criticism for the art of making perfume.  In this book, he follows two perfumers through the process of creating and bringing to market a new perfume: Jean Claude Ellena for Hermes, and Sarah Jessica Parker.  This was my second reading of the book, and I loved it.

Books Read 2014 Summary

Books Read: 138

62% female



76% fiction

24% nonfiction


47% fiction

17%  mystery

13% young adult

13% children’s

10% graphic novels


How I Count: I do not count abandoned books.  I count books I read aloud to kids because that’s reading time for me, too, and I won’t read anything to them that I don’t like.  I do not count picture books read to kids or to self.  I know I missed some.  I keep a list of and notes on books I read throughout the year.  Sometimes I forget to update the list.  I bought some books that I did not read.  Mea culpa.

Analysis: no surprise on the fiction to nonfiction ratio, but I thought I read more like 75% women.  I gave up reading challenges a while back, but I feel like I might be ready to try them again.  I need to read more internationally; I need to read more nonfiction; I need to write more often on this blog.


Perfume (1)

Patrick Suskind

Proust’s Overcoat (2)

Lorenza Foschini

Make Good Art (3)

Neil Gaiman

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K Larsen (4)

Susin Nielsen

The Silent Wife (5)

ASA Harrison

The Goldfinch (6)

Donna Tartt

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (7)

Alan Bradley

The Breadwinner (8)

Deborah Ellis

Cat’s Cradle (9)

Jo Rioux

Jane, the Fox and Me (10)

Fanny Britt

The Rules of Civility (11)

Amor Towles

Christine Falls (12)

Benjamin Black

The Perfect Scent (13)

Chandler Burr


February 2014

Perfumes: The A-Z Guide (14)

Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez

The Emperor of Scent (15)

Chandler Burr

Colossus (16)

Sylvia Plath

Sense and Sensibility (17)

Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility (18)

Joanna Trollope

84, Charing Cross Road (19)

Helene Hanff

Herring on the Nile (20)

L.C. Tyler

Dancing Fish and Ammonites (21)

Penelope Lively

How to Be a Heroine (22)

Samantha Ellis

Wuthering Heights (23)

Charlotte Bronte


March 2014

Cold Comfort Farm (24)

Stella Gibbons

The End of the Beginning (25)


Raising Great Parents: How to Become the Parent Your Child Needs You to Be (26)

Doone Estey and Beverley Cathcart-Ross

Jane Eyre (27)

Charlotte Bronte, read by Juliet Stevenson

Why I Read (28)

Wendy Lesser

We’ll Always Have Paris (29)

Jennifer Coburn

The Silver Swan (30)

Benjamin Black

Elegy for April (31)

Benjamin Black

Canterbury Tales (32)

Retold by Marcia Williams

Canterbury Tales (33)

Retold by Kent Hieatt and Constance Hieatt


April 2014

A Death in Summer (34)

Benjamin Black

The ABC with Honora Lee (35)

Kate Di Goldi

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (36)

Karen Joy Fowler

The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood (37)

Edited by Kerry Clare

Don’t Pigeonhole Me! (38)

Mo Willems

Amazing Everything: The Art of Scott C.  (39-41)

The Great Showdowns

Great Showdowns: The Return

Scott Campbell

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth (42)

Isabel Greenberg

Rooftoppers (43)

Katherine Rundell

The Opposite of Loneliness (44)

Marina Keegan

Northanger Abbey (45)

Val McDermid

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time (46)

Mark Haddon

In Praise of Messy Lives (47)

Katie Roiphe

Half Bad (48)

Sally Green

The Late Scholar (49)

Jill Paton Walsh

Daughter of Smoke and Bone (50)

Liani Taylor


May 2014

Days of Blood and Starlight (51)

Laini Taylor

The Rosie Project (52)

Graeme Simsion

Dreams of Gods & Monsters (53)

Laini Taylor

Dreaming of Elsewhere: Observations on Home (54)

Esi Edugyan

Tenth of December (55)

George Saunders

Lexicon (56)

Max Barry

If I Were a Book (57)

José Jorge Letria

Call the Midwife (58)

Jennifer Worth

The Norfolk Mystery (59)

Ian Sansom

Roseanna (60)

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

Mr Dixon Disappears (61)

Ian Sansom

A Siege of Bitterns (62)

Steve Burrows

Birding with Yeats: A Memoir (63)

Lynn Thomson

This One Summer

Jillian and Mariko Tamaki (64)


June 2014

Boy, Snow, Bird (65)

Helen Oyeyemi

Among Others (66)

Jo Walton

What Makes This Book So Great? (67)

Jo Walton

All My Children (68)

Jo Walton

The Interior Life (69)

Katherine Blake

The Willoughbys (70)

Lois Lowry

The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading (71)

Phyllis Rose

The Sun Also Rises (72)

Ernest Hemmingway

All Saints (73)

K.D. Miller


July 2014

Elizabeth is Missing (74)

Emma Healy

We Were Liars (75)

L. Lockhart

Juliet Was a Surprise (76)

Bill Gaston

Divergent (77)

Veronica Roth

Howl’s Moving Castle (78)

Diana Wynne Jones

Insurgent (79)

Veronica Roth

Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms (80)

Lissa Evans

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (81)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (82)

J.K. Rowling

Allegiant (83)

Veronica Roth

Outlander (84)

Diana Gabaldon

Orkney (85)

Amy Sackville

All Souls (86)

Javier Marias


August 2014

The Word Exchange (87)

Alena Graedon

Lost for Words (88)

Edward St. Aubyn

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers (89)

Tom Rachman

Thunderstruck (90)

Elizabeth McCracken

Blood Red Road (91)

Moira Young

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (92)

J.K. Rowling

Rebel  Heart (93)

Moira Young

Beyond the Page (94)

Words and Pictures (95)

Quentin Blake

Raging Star (96)

Moira Young

Virgin (97)

Amulet Books 1-6 (98-103)

Kazu Kibuishi

Claudine (104)

Barbara Palmer


September  2014

Girl Runner (105)

Carrie Snyder

Ellen in Pieces (106)

Caroline Adderson

All the Broken Things (107)

Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

What Now? (108)

Ann Patchett

A Reliable Wife (109)

Robert Goolrick


October  2014

The Element (110)

Ken Robbins

Interference (111)

Michelle Berry

Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative (112)

Ken Robinson

How to Build a Girl (113)

Caitlin Moran

Station Eleven (114)

Emily St. John Mandel

The Stone Mattress (115)

Margaret Atwood

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (116)

Hilary Mantel

Stoner (117)

John Williams

Script & Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting (118)

Kitty Burns Florey

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (119)

J.K. Rowling

Through the Woods (120)

Emily Carroll

Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog (121)

Kitty Burns Florey

The Victoria Vanishes (122)

Christopher Fowler

Celtic Pattern (123)

Adam Tetlow

Designa (124)

Wooden Books

How to Be Both (125)

Ali Smith


November  2014

The First Person (126)

Ali Smith

The Water Room (127)

Christopher Fowler

Hotel World (128)

Ali Smith

Seventy Seven Clocks (129)

Christopher Fowler

Joy in the Morning (130)

P.G. Wodehouse

Ten Second Staircase (131)

Christopher Fowler

Station Eleven (132)

Emily St. John Mandel

The Murdstone Trilogy (133)

Mal Peet


December  2014

Gregor the Overlander (134)

Suzanne Collins

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (135)

P.D. James

Last Friends (136)

Jane Gardham

Adult Onset (137)

Ann-Marie MacDonald

Twelve Drummers Drumming (138)

C.C. Benison

scriptScript & Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting

Kitty Burns Florey

New York: Melville House, 2013.

A friend on Facebook recently alerted me about a pen and writing show coming to Toronto: Scriptus.  “Dangerous?” she asked.  “Dangerous” does not begin to cover it.

I need another pen like I need a hole in the head, but my superabundance of writing supplies never seems to stop me from looking at/for more.  The rainbows of coloured stationery!  The many hues of ink!  The tactile joy of letterpress printing!

This obsession of mine would be a lot more fun if I could share it with my near and dear ones, but the children really are not all that keen on pens and writing.  Eldest (13) was never really taught how to write, and neither print nor cursive was taught with any rigour.  I learned my lesson and made sure that Middlest (9) and Youngest (6) at least learned the stroke order for making letters.  Middlest learned cursive in school last year, but has, of course, reverted to print since no one requires cursive of him.  Do I want to be the mother who makes her kids do handwriting practice at home?  Well, I want to be the mother of kids who will go into adulthood able to write cursive.  So … I bought the Handwriting Without Tears books and have made stabs at teaching them at home.  When we can.  Sigh.  Not often enough.

I can see why it has fallen to the wayside at school: there are always so many other things to do.  I’m beginning to think we may have to compromise: 15 minutes of handwriting practice in exchange for 15 minutes of screen time….

Like Philip Hensher’s The Missing Ink, Script & Scribble (originally published in 2009, reissued by Melville in 2013) traces not only the history of the development of handwriting, but its demise as well.  It is a wonderful mix of memoir and history, and I loved the balance she found between the two.  There’s a wonderful history of writing implements, and she’s introduced me to new and dangerous wonderful places to find writing goodies.

I found Kitty Burns Florey’s history of handwriting instruction in America to be particularly interesting, and she discusses the ascendancy and decline of the North American styles of looped cursive taught in schools:

The Golden age of script began with the Spencerian style of the mid-1800s:


This was supplanted by the Palmer method in the early 1900s:


which was, in turn, supplanted by the D’Nealian style:


and the even less ornate (and upright) Handwriting Without Tears in the late 20th and early 21st centuries:


Each generation’s writing got a bit less ornate, a bit less fussy.  Until today, when the majority of kids will not have a cursive hand to call their own (insert grumbling here).  I have to admit that although I love the Handwriting Without Tears philosophy and method, I find it to be by far the least attractive of the lot.  But given that handwriting is no longer part of the curriculum (insert more grumbling here), it’s the one I brought home.

Well, I’ve come away from Script and Scribble with a new bee in my bonnet: why do we even have to have loopy writing?  Kitty Burns Florey asks this question herself, and she goes to a handwriting doctor to get her loops fixed.  She feels they are too juvenile, that her writing, with its overly rounded connectors has “a disagreeably girlish look that almost cries out for those dopey little circles dotting the i’s.”

The prescription?  She practices with an adult instructional book on Italic handwriting, which more or less brings us back to medieval Europe and the hand of Italian clerks, and she watches her writing go from “embarrassingly clumsy to terminally cool.”  Medieval roots, yes, but look!  Look at how lovely, stylish and easy to read it is!



And, like HWT, the Getty-Dubay instructional system comes in a six-book set!

I think it’s terminally cool because it looks more like the cursive that is still taught in England and Europe, where loops and scoops were never part of the prescribed method of writing cursive.

And if I can bribe encourage Middlest and Youngest to learn this style of writing, they, too, will be terminally cool.


untitledLost for Words

Edward St. Aubyn

New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014

The whole time I was reading this book, I was thinking what fun St. Aubyn must have had writing it.  I loved St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels.  They were so beautifully crafted, but, because the semi-autobiographical novels dealt with child abuse and substance abuse, they were also really rather bleak.  Lost for Words is a departure, a very pointed satire about the book prize industry, the kind of book prize St. Aubyn narrowly missed winning in 2006 for Mother’s Milk, one of the Melrose novels.

The novel follows members of the jury for the Elysian Prize (none of whom actually read the books in the running) and some of the possible winners of the prize (their psychological disorders run the gamut).  For most of the book, not one of them is in any way likeable, and if I have any quarrel with the book, it’s that three-quarters of the way through, the narrator decides that someone must emerge sympathetically from the blanket of his malice.  The softening for two of the characters at that point does not quite ring true, and I kept waiting for another skewering.

The novel is peppered with excerpts from the short-listed novels as well as the works of the jury members and their lovers.  They are, by far, the best value for money.  St. Aubyn imitates academic discourse, precious prose and trendy grammarless dialogue with uncanny precision.  Accomplished parody is not an easy thing to pull off, but he gets the tone so perfectly.  Here he is as Didier, a French cultural critic:

Nietzsche announced the death of God; Foucault announced the death of Man; the death of Nature announces itself; with no need for an intermediary.  As these three elements of our classical discourse dissolve in the acid rain of late Capitalism, we are offered the consolation of its own pale triumvirate: the producer, the consumer and the commodity.  Thanks to advertising, the producer sells the commodity to the consumer; thanks to the Internet, the consumer is the commodity sold to the producer.  This is the Utopia of borderless democracy: a shift of signifier in the desert of the Real. … In this desert it is forbidden to think.  Even if Capitalism is the crisis, Capitalism must be the solution!

Didier paused, waiting for a second preposterous paradox to pop into his head.  (132-35)

Sad to say, my laughter at this kind of absurdity was not all comfortable innocence.  I felt well rid of my own academic baggage reading that drivel.

The way St. Aubyn satirizes politicians, parents, academics and the press is sizzlingly good.  For most of the book, there’s really no one to like or to root for, and that can make it feel somewhat rudderless, but the plot has such a powerful engine that it’s not a big missing piece.  I devoured it and wanted more.

untitledThe Word Exchange

Alena Graedon

Toronto: Bond Street Books, 2014.

This is the perfect bibliophile’s beach read!  It has all the thrills and spills of a blockbuster summer read, but what the characters are fighting for is the fate of The Word, or words, in the shape of protecting the most recent and most comprehensive edition of  the North American Dictionary of the English Language.

The novel has 26 chapters, one for each letter of the alphabet, and each chapter begins with the definition of a word, but none of these is quite right.  Take A:

Alice n: a girl transformed by reflection

Alice, it turns out, is the code name for one of our narrators, Anana Johnson, whose father has vanished:

On a very cold and lonely Friday last November, my father disappeared from the Dictionary.  And not only from the big glass building on Broadway where its offices were housed.  On that night, my father, Douglas Samuel Johnson (!), Chief Editor of the North American Dictionary of the English Language, slipped from the actual artifact he’d helped compose.

That was before the Dictionary died, letters expiring on the page.  Before the virus.  Before our language dissolved like so much melting snow. … Before my father vanished, before the first signs of S0111 arrived, I’d reflected very little on our way of life.  The changing world I’d come of age in–slowly bereft of books and love letters, photographs and maps, takeout menus, timetables, liner notes, and diaries–was a world I’d come to accept.  If I was missing out on things, they were things I didn’t think to miss.  How could we miss words?  We were drowning in a sea of text.  A new one arrived, chiming, every minute. (3)

In this near future, we drown in words but they all lack meaning, and much of that absence of content can be blamed on our increasing dependence on our devices.  Instead of phones, the ubiquitous device is a Meme, and it serves not only as a means of communication, but also as an extension of self and a substitute consciousness.  When the narrator enters a restaurant at the beginning of the novel, her Meme brings up the menu, but it then overrides her drink order, replacing a tea with a hot toddy, because it knows that she needs a stiff drink.

Memes can also, crucially, give their owners the words or definitions they need if they have difficulty remembering a word or its meaning.  Five cents a word.  Touch of a button.  This exchange is where the novel plays out: in the space between our use of language and its digital and corporate control.

Definitions and their ownership are the territory over which the characters battle, and the book is a fun and rollicking ride through an alarmingly corrupt future.  I was reminded often of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, and especially of Oryx and Crake in which Atwood does the heavy lifting of her world building.  They share the same kind of hysterical exaggeration of nefarious corporate interests that frightens, nevertheless, because, yes, people can be that stupid and that greedy.

At first, the struggle seems to be over the ownership of words and their definitions, but when a virus that corrupts spoken as well as digital communication begins to spread, the stakes get suddenly and critically higher.

This is a first novel for Graedon, a graduate of Brown and of Columbia’s MFA programme, and while the novel reveals its author to be whip smart and savvy about what makes a page-turner, I felt that her editor could have been more firm about eliminating some redundancies and tightening up some of the plot.  There are double and triple agents, but I never quite felt that the revelation had had the proper build up.  There was a bit too much slack in the reins, but not enough to spoil the ride.

Add this to your beach read haul for summer, though, and you’ll be reading well past sunset.


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