The Word Exchange, by Alena Graedon

The Word ExchangeI was really excited for this book when I first heard details about it — a dude disappears from the dictionary and disappears in real life, everyone walks around carrying “Memes” that start to take away people’s ability to use language, there’s this thing called the Word Exchange where people can buy meanings of words but then it start to become corrupted. It sounded intriguing and fantastical and I admit I felt like maybe Thursday Next would show up on the scene.

I was so wrong.

Okay, not super wrong. The story is intriguing, but it is most decidedly not fantastical, instead positing a near-future near-dystopia where our smartphones have become Memes that do every dang thing for us including divining our thoughts to tell us what restaurants are nearby right as we’re realizing it’s time for lunch. Which is AWESOME but of course also pretty creepy.

There are two sort-of narrators to this book, Anana and Bart. Both narrators tell the story of how Anana’s dad Doug, the head of the last print dictionary, went missing one night very mysteriously, his encyclopedia-like entry in his own dictionary missing from the electronic version and a weird note in his pneumatic tube bin (yes, really). Anana sets out to find him with the help of Bart, another dictionary employee, but things start to go wrong very fast. There’s new technology coming out and people who very much want to make sure that it comes out and are willing to make sure with violence (and sloppy eating no I can’t help myself), and of course a faction against new technology who have quite a good case because the new tech and to a lesser extent the old tech are causing word flu which gives you aphasia and then sometimes kills you, yay.

Anana’s chapters are written as a sort of journal from the future looking back on the craziness, so there are a few places where she is like, if only I had known X or if only I hadn’t been an idiot here, and that’s the kind of thing I eat up with a spoon so plus ten points to Graedon.

Bart’s chapters, on the other hand, are actual journals during the events that happen, including when Bart comes down with word flu and every fifth word is gibberish and after two chapters of that I was like, I GET IT, but there were still so many chapters left to go. I really wanted to know what was going to happen to everyone but I actually found myself dreading having to read the book because of all the strange words, so minus, like, a hundred points to Graedon there.

So basically, the problem with me was that I was expecting fantasy and got a technothriller, and the problem with the book (for me) was that it got too caught up in its conceit and lost the already thin thread of plot that it had. But outside of those problems, the book had a really interesting premise, great scenes, and a pretty solid ending, so your mileage may vary.

Recommendation: For those expecting a technothriller and who don’t mind looking warily at their smartphones for the next ever.

Rating: 7/10

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster (10 July — 11 July)

So back in the day, I was a big nerd. “Just back in the day?”, I hear you saying, and you are right. But! Nonetheless. Big nerd. As part of my nerdiness, I did things like memorize state capitals and dichotomous keys (the latter has not stayed with me, sadly) found in my Childcraft encyclopedia/instructive books set. Did you have such a set? Because these books were awesome. And one of them, the one focused on math, included an excerpt from The Phantom Tollbooth, wherein Milo meets the Dodecahedron. I knew right away (at what, eight years old?) that I needed to find this book immediately. It’s been my favorite children’s book ever since.

For those of you who didn’t have Childcraft and/or were not interested in nerdy books as a child, The Phantom Tollbooth is the story of a kid called Milo who is just bored with life. I’ll let the author explain:

“When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’d bothered. Nothing really interested him—least of all the things that should have.”

One day Milo arrived home, bored, to discover a curious package in his living room. Again, let’s let Juster set the scene:

“Who could possibly have left such an enormous package and such a strange one? For, while it was not quite square, it was definitely not round, and for its size it was larger than almost any other big package of smaller dimension that he’d ever seen.”

And it goes on from there. The package is the titular tollbooth, and Milo drives his toy car past it and into a land where all of our idiomatic expressions are taken literally (e.g. Milo jumps to conclusions about his trip and finds himself jumping to an island called Conclusions from which he must swim back) and there is a bit of a feud between math and language. Milo, with his companions Tock the watchdog (a dog with a clock for a torso) and the Humbug (who has a predilection for the number seventeen that I’ve long since assimilated), finds himself volunteering to end this feud by way of a perilous journey to the Castle in the Air, where the princesses Rhyme and Reason have been imprisoned for far too long.

Basically, it’s an adventure book with a great message for kids (knowledge, all of it, is important) and sly references for the adults reading it to them. The illustrations are cute, too.

Rating: 9/10
(Summer Lovin’ Challenge)

Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn (13 February)

This is a “progressively lipogrammatic epistolary novel,” or, in other words, a book written in letters (that you’d send in the mail) that has to be careful of its words as certain letters (of the alphabet) are removed from the book one by one.

The premise is that there is an island called Nollop that is beholden to words and tradition: its citizens send letters and read newspapers without help of the internet. It is named after Nevin Nollop, the alleged inventor of the pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” This sentence is placed prominently on a cenotaph (yeah, there’s some vocabulary in this novel!) in town, which becomes a problem when the letter “z” falls off. Ella Minnow Pea, her cousin Tassie, their families, and the rest of Nollop are at first amused when the island council decrees that the letter thus shall no longer be used (or allowed to be used, or read, or spoken of), but grow increasingly apprehensive when “q” falls off, then “j,” et cetera.

We find all of this out through letters between Ella, Tassie, et al, which become more limited as the letters fall. Scott’s favorite line near the end reads something like, “OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.”

Ella Minnow Pea is a book for word nerds but also a commentary on totalitarian societies. Excellent combination!

Rating: 8.5/10
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