12 April 2014

Book Review: The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

"Words, I've come to learn, are pulleys through time. Portals into other minds." 

*I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

Goodreads description (x): 
 (condensed): 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.
     Anana Johnson works with her father, Doug, at the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL), where Doug is hard at work on the last edition that will ever be printed. One evening, Doug disappears from the NADEL offices, leaving a single written clue: ALICE. It’s a code word he devised to signal if he ever fell into harm’s way. And thus begins Anana’s journey down the proverbial rabbit hole . . .
     Joined by Bart, her bookish NADEL colleague, Anana begins to penetrate the mystery of her father’s disappearance as a pandemic of decaying language called “word flu” spreads. The Word Exchange becomes a cautionary tale that is at once a technological thriller and a meditation on the high cultural costs of digital technology.

 My rating: 4 out of 5 hoots 

Two different POVs make up this novel, piecing together a terrifying story which, until it eventually unfolds, had me in full suspense. Because of the two narrators, you also receive different perspectives about the "word flu" stricken world around them. In a few of the reviews that I read, some people were complaining they didn't like the back-and-forth of POVs--they found it annoying and too much to follow. Having read George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, I can easily say two narrators is nothing. Because Alena Graedon gives these two characters (and even the minor characters) such strong voices, it's obvious who is narrating for us.

There are no chapter numbers, no titles such as "Anana's POV" or "Bart's POV." Instead, the entire book follows the alphabet, with what would ordinarily be the chapter's title replaced with a word followed by its definition. This seemed to be a cause for complaint among many reviewers as well, but I found it quite charming. After all, the book is about the dictionary, and uh...words, words, words!

The footnotes from the author were enjoyable to read--to an extent. I actually felt rather neutral towards them. I don't mind a book with footnotes, but this one needed more or none at all. (Also, if you're reading this book on a Kindle, like many have found out, footnotes are a pain in the rear.)

Overall, I just can't bring myself to chat others up enough about Graedon's writing. Every aspect--from her use of diction, to her brilliant metaphors, to her impeccable imagery--all tallied up to create this story that truly takes you through the rabbit hole and back out. You feel a bit dizzy afterwards, but it was so worth it in the end.

Because the plot is so much like a little puzzle, but not necessarily a "whodunit" type of deal, the book ends up being one of those that, even when you're not reading it, you're thinking about it. I love when you're trying to solve a part of a book as you're going along with it, especially if it turns out unexpectedly. If that happens, I immediately award 10 points to Gryffindor.

Something that might be off-putting to some readers, though, and which is a bit jarring at first, is that after the word flu starts making its rounds in the book, Graedon allows the reader to experience firsthand what the pandemic is all about by sneaking in some nonsense words. Like I said, first it's a bit jarring. Then it's a little puzzling. I became irritated by it in some parts because, even with the context around it, I still couldn't figure out what the person was trying to say. Either way, I became used to it...which was, admittedly, a little scary. I almost felt like I was coming down the word flu myself.

I also had to look up many words on my Kindle's dictionary. I kept thinking, "Am I really having this much brain fog lately or are these words just really tricky?" I came to believe it was all a matter of the author giving us a taste of what it was like for the Meme users who were constantly looking up data (especially word definitions) on the Word Exchange every few minutes. (That, or she was just really pulling out the big guns.)

When it comes to the Memes and technology, you start to realize fairly quickly the theme is pretty in-your-face. I'm not saying it was irritating...it just made me want to set my phone aside for a while. Because the book goes so in-depth with our language, communication, and human nature, anything similar to a word flu pandemic in the real world would make me shrink in panic.

Even though I really did enjoy this book, and I know I'm not describing the Memes very well or the word flu (I don't want to spoil the book!), there was one thing that really bothered me. I actually ended up liking another character better than the main character, Anana. It wasn't that I disliked her, it was just that I found the other character, Bart, easier to relate to. That being said, I did like how the characters each had flaws and did actually make mistakes that were for the most part, mistakes most of us would probably make in such a crisis.

Would I recommend this book? Absolutely. You want to know what else I would recommend? Reading. Preferably the dictionary. Because, holy mackerel...I feel like I've gained knowledge but also gained a few headaches along the way.

*Thanks NetGalley for the free copy of this book. 

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