Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

Main characters: Anana (aka Alice), Bart, Doug
Location: Manhattan and Oxford, England
Time period: Near future
Genre:  Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Science Fiction

I found this book utterly delightful.  Not just for the thriller plotline and characters, but for the clever thesis, examination of language and communication, speculation on over-dependence on computers, and references to other works.  (I am such a sucker for clever things.)

Ana is worried about her father, Doug, who missed a dinner date with her.  As she tries to locate him, she discovers that he has seemingly disappeared without a trace from his office, where he is the editor of the North American Dictionary of the English Language, which is about to release the massive 3rd edition.  Bart, a co-worker of Doug's, tries to downplay Ana's fears but soon even he has to admit that something is wrong.

That simple setup does nothing to prepare you for the rabbit hole that this story plunges into.  In a near future where most Americans are literally addicted to their smart phones, a corporation is attempting to monetize language by buying up the copyrights to all the printed dictionaries, then destroying the printed copies so that people are forced to use the only online dictionary--The Word Exchange--where they are charged per word lookup.  Next, a game encourages people to make up their own words.  Soon, whispers of a word flu begin to leak out and a virus attacks both computers and human brains, threatening to destroy language entirely.

The delight begins with the table of contents, where you see that the chapters are named in alphabetical order.  The chapter titles are then matched with definitions that recall those of Samuel Johnson, the great English lexicographer.  For example, empanada is defined as "a source of considerable digestive discomfort."  Compare that to Johnson's definition of oats: "a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people."

Samuel Johnson's dictionary is a running theme in this novel, even down to Doug and Ana's surname of Johnson.  Another literary work that is referenced is is Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.  Doug's fondness for nicknames leads him to refer to Ana as Alice, and there is a reference to the poem, Jabberwocky, which is filled with made up words.  And who can forget Humpty Dumpty's assertion that "when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."

Though not referenced this work, I was also reminded of another science fiction book I recently read--Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, which also has a running theme of a virus that affects both computers and minds.

I wonder what Grant and Martha from A Way with Words will think of The Word Exchange.

I read this as an e-ARC from NetGalley.  The Word Exchange is scheduled for release on April 8.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

There Here and Now by Ann Brashares

Main characters: 17-year-olds Prenna, a refugee from the future, and Ethan, a time native
Location: upstate New York
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction, dystopia, time travel, timey-wimey mystery

Our future is not a bright one. The world becomes warmer and wetter which allows the mosquito population to expand greatly without the cold winters to control them.  Places that never had to worry about mosquito borne illnesses before are now vulnerable to a number of them, including the blood plague which decimates the human population.  Fearing the mosquitoes, people begin using and then over using pesticides, and doing whatever they can to destroy mosquito habitat, not realizing until too late that they've destroyed their own habitat as well.

This is the world that Prenna comes from.  She and her mother were part of a temporal emigration.  Their group has been here in our time for 4 years now but live by strict rules designed to prevent affecting the timeline.  So while there is some interaction with the time natives, intimate relationships are forbidden.  This is difficult for Prenna because Ethan is very interested in her.  And truth to tell, she is interested in Ethan too.

There is a nice dose of romance in this book, as Prenna and Ethan discover that the leaders of her group are not, as claimed, interested in repairing the future but only in keeping control of their followers much like cult leaders.  The two are able to puzzle out clues from the future to find the tipping point that will prevent the coming catastrophe.

Ann Brashares is, of course, best know for The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series.  While this book may not sound like it has much in common with that series, there is still the emphasis on relationships--with parents, with best friends, with boyfriends--as young women learn to come into their own and discover their own independence.

Though it doesn't dwell on the subject of global warming, it is clear that this is the trigger of the bleak future--and it is not an unreasonable progression.  Last summer, the area where I live was hit hard by West Nile Virus--a previously unfamiliar disease spread by mosquitoes.  Many communities, including my own, used nighttime aerial spraying to try to control the mosquito population while the nightly news was filled with stories of the ever increasing death toll.

I read this as an e-ARC from NetGalley.  The Here and Now is scheduled to be released on April 8.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald

Main character: 13-year old Theo Tenpenny
Location: Manhattan
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: Art History, Mystery, Puzzle, Juvenile Fiction

The publisher's blurb for this book compares it to From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil F. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg and Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett.  Since I enjoyed both of those books, I was well primed to like this one--and I was not disappointed.

Theo Tenpenny lives in an old house in Manhattan that has been in her family for generations.  Her family is not financially well-off so the house has seen better days, but Theo does her best to keep it standing.  Her grandfather, Jack, was a painter, but he was killed in a traffic accident before the start of the book.  Theo was a witness to the accident, and as he lays dying he tells her to find the treasure that is under the egg.

I hesitate to give too many plot details because a great deal of the enjoyment in reading this book was to discover things along with Theo and with Bodhi, a new girl in the neighborhood who has had just as unconventional an upbringing as Theo.  Starting with just Jack's cryptic words, the two girls chase clues, solve the mystery, find the treasure, and make friends with many wonderful characters along the way.

It is that cast of characters that also adds to the enjoyment of the book.  Many have their eccentricities--especially the French tea-seller who lives next door--but, with two notable exceptions, they all give generously to the two girls and open Theo's world up greatly.  They reminded me of the townspeople in Gilmore Girls' Stars Hollow.

I would definitely recommend this to tweens who enjoy mysteries, as well as anyone who enjoyed Mixed Up Files and Chasing Vermeer.

I read this as an e-ARC from NetGalley.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Runaway King by Jennifer Nieman (The Ascendance Trilogy, bk. 2)

Main character: Jaron, a 14-year-old king
Location: the kingdom of Carthya
Time period:  Medieval-ish
Genre: Fantasy (non-magical)
Sequel to: The False Prince

When we last left our heroes, Jaron had reclaimed his rightful throne and revealed the identity of the traitor who was responsible for the deaths of his parents and brother.  We knew that wasn't the end of the story--there were too many people who were jostling to claim power for themselves to simply accept a teenaged kind that most had assumed was long dead.  (Besides, there were two more books to come in the trilogy.)

At the state memorial service for Jaron's family, he is the victim of an assassination attempt led by Roden, one of the boys he was in competition with in the first book.  Roden is now allied with the pirates and has a message for Jaron--the pirates want Jaron dead.  He can surrender himself to them and they will leave Carthya in peace, or they will invade and destroy Carthya in order to kill Jaron.

Jaron's regents advise him to go into hiding while they elect a steward to rule Carthya.  The most likely choice for steward is Gregor Breslyan, captain of the guard.  Not surprisingly, Gregor is one of the strongest voices urging Jaron to hide.  But also not surprisingly, Jaron has his own ideas.  He pretends to go along with the plan, but instead of going to the planned hiding place, he takes up his old identity as the orphan boy Sage and goes to find the pirate crew.  Along the way, he learns some things that are happening to his kingdom that he was never told, and he meets some new characters--some that will be friends and some that will definitely not be friends.

I really enjoy how Jaron is able to submerge himself in Sage's identity, and how he never lies to anyone.  He tells the truth--not necessarily the whole truth--and if the listener fills in the blanks with wrong assumptions that's not Jaron's fault (though it usually works in his favor.)  He has been alone for so long that he is wary of others and their motives, which on the one hand is a good thing since Conner was not the only traitor in Jaron's court.  On the other hand, it does cause him to keep at arm's length people who want to help him, such as Amarinda, his intended princess.  Fortunately, he begins to learn to trust and by the end of this book has built a loyal cadre of friends and advisors.

The book ends on a cliffhanger that lets us know what the main plot of the last book will be.  Unfortunately, it will be a while before I can get my hands on The Shadow Throne.  For this series, I am reading copies checked out from my library.


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen (The Ascendance, bk. 1)

Main character: Sage, a 14-year-old orphan
Location: the kingdom of Carthya
Time period:  Medieval-ish
Genre: Fantasy (non-magical)

A friend and co-worker has been urging me to read this book, the first in the Ascendance Trilogy.  Not only was she right that I'd enjoy it, I've already checked out book #2 to read next.

Sage is an orphan, a thief, and a street rat.  One day a nobleman named Conner arrives at Mrs. Turbeldy's orphanage and offers to take Sage off her hands--and pay her a handsome price for the exchange.  She agrees with alacrity, and Sage is thrown into a cart with three other orphan boys, all of similar age and, strangely, of similar physical features and build.

Once they arrive at Conner's castle, his sinister plan is revealed--the royal family has been killed and Conner wants to gain control of the kingdom by installing Prince Jaron on the throne.  Prince Jaron was lost at sea four years earlier when pirates attacked his ship but his body was never found, so Conner is seeking a boy of the right age and physical type who could impersonate the prince well enough to convince the regents.  Thus begins a dangerous competition where the winner gains a throne and the losers lose their lives to ensure their silence.

The False Prince is a suspenseful cat-and-mouse game with layers of secrecy, lies, and betrayals.  We are fairly sure that Sage will win out--he is the main character after all--but how will he save the others?  And why he is fighting Conner at every turn?  And just where is the story going after this?

The False Prince was on the 2013 Texas Lone Star Reading List.  I read a copy checked out from my library.