I heard about Fish in Exile via Sarah McCarry’s post about it on her old blog, and re-reading that post now I would agree with her assessment that this book “is addictive, but for quite some time you have no idea what it’s even about.” The day I started it, I tried to explain it to someone, and I think all I managed to express was my befuddlement. That befuddlement remained for a fair chunk of the book, but I didn’t much mind, because on a sentence level, Nao’s writing is gorgeous. Like: “Light shifts, lifting the four corners of the room into an origami box” (16). Or: “I stand there like a front burner gazing at the stars and the dismal, faraway sea” (45). Or: “I imagine moving through the sea of winter with a boat, a pair of oars, and light” (87) Or: “The clouds take turns combing each other’s manes” (133).

The book is about a married couple, Ethos and Catholic, who are in a deep state of grief over their dead children, but that description of it doesn’t get at its sometimes-surreal strangeness. The six sections of the book have different narrators and different forms; there are sections of dialogue that recall a play (perhaps a Greek tragedy); Greek myth is there, too: a fairly great/hilarious retelling of the Persephone myth makes up a large part of one of the sections. At one point in the retelling, Hades is talking about how great things have been since he brought Persephone to the underworld: “It’s like a festival down there. Banquets and film screenings left and right. Of course, the only film we watch in the underworld is Satantango” (77). (Ethos’s mother is a classics professor, and there are a few amusing Anne Carson jokes/references in this section too.)

But when it’s not being formally inventive or surreal or funny, Fish in Exile gets at the emotional experiences that Ethos and Catholic are having. They seem to alternate in who is more sad and more stuck at any given moment; their shared but separate grief strains their partnership. Early in the book, Ethos (the husband) tells Catholic he’s “in exile” and notes she doesn’t understand; he left his job when the children died and seems to spend his days aimlessly passing time at home or by the ocean. Later, it’s Catholic who seems more stuck in sorrow; there’s a gorgeous several-page section near the end of the book talking about her pain which I would love to quote but can’t really, because it’s all so good. Despite how adrift I felt when I started this book, I was caught up in it by the time I got to the (very good) ending, which I read on the subway home from work, totally rapt.

I was recently talking with someone about what I was currently reading, which was this novel, and he asked what else I had read by Ali Smith and then asked if she’s an author where I feel like I want to read every book she writes/has written, and I realized that the answer to that question is yes, even if I’m sometimes slow to get around to them: I still haven’t read How to Be Both, for example, even though I own a copy. I wasn’t too slow with this one, though: I heard about it last year, before it was actually out in the US, and was reminded about of its existence by Stefanie’s post about it last month, and promptly grabbed it when I saw it at the library recently.

The flap copy says that Autumn is “a story about aging and time and love and stories themselves,” to which my reaction was basically “yes please,” and aw, there are so many good things in this book, which centers around the friendship of Elisabeth Demand and her old (both in the sense of former and in the sense of elderly) neighbor, Daniel Gluck. In the autumn of 2016, Elisabeth is 32 and a university lecturer; Daniel is 101 and in a care home. The book is set in the autumn of 2016, but with lots of earlier bits too: we see Elisabeth at age 8, meeting Daniel, and Elisabeth at age 11, going to see The Tempest with him, and Elisabeth, somewhere in childhood, crying in his backyard, and Daniel himself not much past childhood, spending time with his sister when he was 17 and his sister was 12. A lot of the book is about Elisabeth and Daniel, but there are sections too, about Elisabeth’s sometimes-challenging relationship with her mother, and about Daniel’s unrequited love for the (real) artist Pauline Boty, and about life now, television and bureaucracy and uncertainty. There’s a lot, too, about more abstract things: art, and story, and transformation. Metamorphosis is a recurring theme (at one point, Elisabeth is reading Ovid aloud to Daniel as he sleeps; some images find their way into his dreams) but not just metamorphosis, change in general: changing seasons (this is the first of four planned volumes in a seasonal quartet) and the changes of growing up/growing old/nearing death, and unexpected life changes (like when Elisabeth’s mother finds herself surprised by love) and political changes (the Brexit vote, though not named as such, is referenced, including in a really amazing two-page section that is made up mostly of sentences beginning with “All across the country,” as in, “All across the country, people felt righteous. All across the country, people felt sick” (60) et cetera).

I like how many good conversations between Elisabeth and Daniel there are, imagined ones and remembered or forgotten ones, and I like how good-natured and big-hearted Daniel is in those conversations, and how he teaches Elisabeth about important things, about, for example, how “whoever makes up the story makes up the world,” and how you should “always try to welcome people into the home of your story” (119).

And oh, I love Smith’s writing: this book is full of so many good descriptions and images. Like when Daniel tells Elisabeth to close her eyes and then closes his eyes, too, to describe one of Boty’s pieces to her, and then she opens her eyes just before he does and thinks of how seeing him open his eyes is “like that moment when you just happen to see the streetlights come on and it feels like you’re being given a gift, or a chance, or that you yourself’ve been singled out and chosen by the moment” (74). Or this moment when Elisabeth wakes up one morning at her mother’s house: “the little TV up on the shelf in the kitchen is on but with the sound turned down; it must have been on, lighting and darking the kitchen by itself, all night” (233). Or this, about the sidewalk in November (with a nod to Gerard Manley Hopkins): “The leaves are stuck to the ground with wet. The ones on the paving are yellow and rotting, wanwood, leafmeal. One is so stuck that when it eventually peels away, its leafshape left behind, shadow of a leaf, will last on the pavement till next spring” (259).

TL;DR: this book is lovely and made me teary-eyed on the subway, twice. Also, I really like Sarah Lyall’s review of it in the New York Times.

I don’t know whether to call Pond a novel or a collection of linked stories: it consists of named pieces of varying length, all but one of which are first-person narrations, with the same narrator. A novel with a shift at the very end? Whatever it is, I found myself alternately enjoying it and not. I found it well-written, with a strong voice, but that strong voice is pretty much all there is: there is little in the way of plot or character, other than the sense of our narrator’s character we get through her voice, and I found the whole thing a bit claustrophobic, and a little off-putting, but I think that may well be intentional. Our narrator lives in a cottage somewhere in the west of Ireland; she was an academic at some point, or was trying to be, but seems not to be at present. She sleeps with people; she has friends; she throws a party. But largely it feels like she moves through her days alone/in her head, and these stories are very concerned with the way she moves through her days. She talks about breakfast: “Sometimes a banana with coffee is nice” (3). She talks about her fading nail-polish and the dirt under her nails: “They look like the hands of someone very charming and refined who has had to dig themselves up out of some dank and wretched spot they really shouldn’t have fallen into” (6-7). She talks about coming to a literal and figurative standstill after a break-up, and about fleeing the room after giving an academic talk, and about how the knobs on her stove are eventually all going to break and she’s not sure what she’ll do then. There are some really lovely bits, like when she talks about lying in the garden on a blanket listening to insects and various kinds of birds:

And each sound was a rung that took me further upwards, and in this way it was possible for me to get up really high, to climb up past the clouds, towards a bird-like exuberance, where there is nothing at all but continuous light and acres of blue. (25)

Some of the shorter pieces in the book are funny and really well-paced: there’s one called “First Thing” that’s only a page that’s about waking up after having had maybe too much beer the previous night, and having to deal with a ratcatcher coming to take care of a rat in her cottage, which ends like this: “And because I wasn’t really here I didn’t yet know how I like things, so I put two sugars and milk into my coffee, because that’s how the ratcatcher takes his” (29). A piece called “Wishful Thinking” was another highlight for me, as was “Stir-fry,” which you can read in full in Jia Tolentino’s review on the New Yorker website.

Also, I really like this, from “Finishing Touch”:

Quite often I’m terribly disappointed by how things turn out, but it’s usually my own fault for the simple reason that I’m too quick to conclude that things have turned out as fully as it is possible for them to turn, when in fact, quite often, they are still on the turn and have some way to go until they have turned out completely. (80)

I’m sure I’m not the only person to have the problem of always packing too many books when I go on vacation, right? I mean, I read a lot when I’m at home, surely I’ll read a lot elsewhere, too? I’m on vacation! I’m not going to be cooking or cleaning or doing laundry, so, I mean, what else will I do? And what about those long flights? I’ll read, right? Well, sort of. I tend to forget that at home I have a twice-daily chunk of reading time built in, in the form of my commute via subway to and from work; that isn’t there when I’m on vacation. And when I’m on vacation I’m probably out doing things/seeing things/getting lost, or sleeping after a long day of walking, or having dinner with the friend I’m visiting: all very good things, but things that are not reading. And those long flights—sometimes reading works on them, but sometimes I just want to sleep. Or watch movies back to back. Or stare out the window, wondering where exactly we are and whether I’m going to make my connecting flight (true story: on this particular vacation, I found myself full-on running from one terminal of the airport in Houston to another: it was fine, but my flight was already boarding when I got to the gate). All of which is to say, it probably took me longer to read Norse Mythology while I was on vacation than it would have if I’d read it at home, but that didn’t diminish my enjoyment of it.

The book is made up of 16 stories, plus an introduction and a glossary, but there is a narrative arc/the stories should be read in order. In the introduction, Gaiman talks about his own introduction to the Norse gods via comic books he read as a kid, followed by books of myth; he says he has tried to retell them as “accurately” and as “interestingly” as he can (14). I can’t really speak for the accuracy of his retellings—I think maybe the only other book of Norse myths I’ve read was A.S. Byatt’s retellings in Ragnarök: The End of the Gods—but Gaiman’s retellings are definitely interesting. I like how he uses current/casual language to often-humorous effect, like when Freya, worried that she’s going to be married off against her will because of an agreement Loki’s gotten all the gods to buy into, turns to him and just says “I hate you so much” (78). And I like the way Gaiman combines a matter-of-fact tone/phrasing with more poetic language, like this early description of Loki: “Loki makes the world more interesting but less safe. He is the father of monsters, the author of woes, the sly god” (24). After an introduction to Odin, Thor, and Loki, Gaiman moves on to the Norse origin myth, and from there onto the world-tree, Yggdrasil, and Odin’s desire for wisdom, and other, more various stories. I love this, from a story about Thor and his wife waking up one day to find that she’s bald, and Thor being convinced that it’s somehow Loki’s fault, then telling Loki he’ll break every bone in his body if he doesn’t fix the situation:

“Today,” mused Thor, it will probably take me about an hour to break every bone in your body. But I bet that with practice I could get it down to about fifteen minutes. It will be interesting to find out.” He started to break his first bone. (53)

As with Byatt’s retellings, I felt like Loki was often a highlight of this book; he’s forever being motivated to sort things out because he needs to save his own skin, and the uncertainty and drama he adds to things gives the stories a lot of their force. I love that when Odin confronts him about his monstrous children, this is how Gaiman describes it:

Loki said nothing. He tried to look ashamed and succeeded simply in looking pleased with himself. (94)

I think the story of “Freya’s Unusual Wedding” was probably my favorite in the book, followed by “Thor’s Journey to the Land of the Giants,” but the whole thing was pretty delightful to read.

Every Heart a Doorway, set at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, is a novel (novella?) that I felt was more about the allegory than the story, though Cory Doctorow feels that it’s the other way around. Not that I didn’t like this (beautifully-written) book: I did, a whole lot. It just felt less about the plot or even the characters and more about the ideas. There’s a fairy-tale feel to Every Heart a Doorway, which is appropriate, given its subject: the Home for Wayward Children is a school for teenagers who have traveled to other realms via magic portals but had to leave, for whatever reason or non-reason, and now find themselves back in our world, each yearning for the place they left, the place where they felt right/understood/at home.

Near the beginning of the book we meet Nancy, a new student at the school: she’s been to the Halls of the Dead and wants to go back. Her roommate, Sumi, tells her she should know better: “You can’t go back. Once they throw you out, you can’t go back,” Sumi says, but others at the school share Nancy’s hope (26). As the book progresses we get to learn bits about where other students have been: the other worlds they’ve traveled to are roughly divided into worlds governed by Logic and worlds governed by Nonsense, with Wickedness and Virtue as the other main “compass points” by which the worlds are categorized, though there are other characteristics too, like Rhyme and Linearity, or Whimsy and Wild. A pair of twins went to a world with wild moors and vampires and a Doctor-Frankenstein-ish mad scientist; another girl went to a place with “boys made of glass whose kisses had cut her lips”; when someone else tells about the world she went to, it’s “a majestic, epic tale of spider princesses and tiny dynasties”; a boy who turns out to be able to make bones dance went to a world of “happy, dancing skeletons” that he describes as “pretty sunshiny, but sort of sunshine by way of Día de los Muertos” (56, 95, 110).

There’s a lot in this book about the tensions of growing up, about parents like Nancy’s who say they want their “real daughter back,” parents who want the children they knew and can’t/won’t figure out how to let those children be the people they’re becoming. There’s a lot, too, about identity and self-determination and belonging/not-belonging, and kids/teens figuring out who they are: Nancy is asexual and talks about the challenges of explaining that to her peers; there’s also a trans boy, Kade, who talks about how his trip to a Fairyland was the first time he was properly seen as himself, rather than as a girl. Every student ended up in a realm that was right for them: as Jack (short for Jacqueline), one of the twins, puts it, “for the first time, we didn’t have to pretend to be something we weren’t. We just got to be” (57). All of this worked for me, moreso than the other aspect of the story, which is a horror-inflected mystery plot, though it wasn’t bad, just not what I found the most appealing (and hard to talk about without being spoilery!).

If you’re curious, you can read an excerpt of this book over at io9.

For years, until it stopped happening, my favorite thing to do on New Year’s Eve was to go to the Pratt campus here in Brooklyn, which has a steam-powered electricity-generating power plant. On New Year’s Eve, the chief engineer would rig up his collection of historic steam whistles outside: there was a steam calliope, and whistles from trains and boats, and at midnight they’d go off together with billows of steam, a variety of pitches. You can find videos online but they don’t capture how it felt to be there surrounded by the sound, not just hearing the whistles but feeling the vibrations from them in your body, especially the biggest and deepest one. I thought about that thrum when reading The Chimes, a dystopian novel which features a massive instrument called the Carillon, whose sounding brings the people of England to their knees on a daily basis, and whose vibrations mean loss: of written language, of birds, which died when Chimes started, and also, daily, of memory.

The Chimes is disorienting at first, and it’s meant to be, and it works: we’re with our narrator, Simon, as he makes his way to London from Essex: his mother, who recently died, has sent him to find a woman named Netty, and that’s about all he can remember about that: he has no idea who Netty might be or why he’s meant to find her. We learn about this future England in bits and pieces: there’s no written language; people communicate largely in music and in the hand-signals tied to the notes of solfege. Memory doesn’t work properly: people have their bodymemory, their muscle-memory of the work they do, and they are able to sort of/sometimes remember important things by storing the memories in objects, and music helps keep some memories, too, though mostly just place-memory, the route to take from point A to point B, communicated in song. Children all learn musical instruments, and every morning everyone sings Onestory, a song about how the Order (the group who built/compose for/play the Carillon) brought the country together after a cataclysmic event called Allbreaking, which seems to have turned much of London to rubble and sent the country back to a pre-Industrial-Revolution kind of existence.

In London, Simon finds Netty but doesn’t know what help she’s meant to give him, and she doesn’t seem too inclined to be helpful anyway, so he follows a sound/feeling he has to the Thames, which leads him to a hunk of palladium in the muck: palladium, we learn, is what the Carillon is made of, and packs/pacts of scavengers in the city collect it and sell it to the Order. Simon falls into one of these pacts, with a boy named Lucien and a few others. Lucien is blind, but leads the pact through the tunnels under London with his extra-sharp hearing; they have their daily routines and each other but not much else. But then another member of the pact, a girl named Clare, tells Simon she hears him and Lucien talking at night. Simon doesn’t remember this so doesn’t know what she’s talking about, but then, slowly, he figures it out, and the plot turns into an adventure/quest, with Simon and Lucien setting out from London together on a mission.

After reading a bunch of realistic fiction, this book was exactly what I was in the mood for. The writing is gorgeous and immersive, and it was a delight to be absorbed in the book’s world. I loved things like this description of Chimes, early in the book: “Chimes is like a fist. It unclutches, opens. Starts like a fist, but then bursts like a flowering. Who can say if it’s very slow or very fast? Chimes is always different, and even after the thousands of times, I couldn’t venture to say what it’s like” (12). The adventure/quest narrative plays out somewhat predictably, though there was a twist I totally didn’t see coming, and by that time I was invested enough in the story and characters that the predictability didn’t bother me. I mean, it’s OK for certain stories to fit certain shapes. I cried, multiple times, and when I wasn’t crying I was busy being pleased by the themes of the book, by its focus on memory and story and how narrative shapes things, and how narrative opens up possibilities. Simon is, basically, a writer, someone who observes and wonders and imagines and remembers as best he can, and I like how the book explores all of that. I did wonder (as I sometimes do when reading this particular kind of dystopia that’s set in our world but focuses on one geographical location, like The Hunger Games did), about the rest of the world: does the Order’s power stretch beyond England? Or is the rest of the world like, “Oh, London. Used to be a nice place, and then it was a war zone. Now it’s, like, medieval? *shrug*” But mostly I was willing to suspend disbelief and just go with it.

Also: I love this page on the author’s website: The World of The Chimes – A Non-Exhaustive Handbook.

Attachments is not my favorite Rainbow Rowell novel, but it was a quick read, and I was in the mood for something light, and it was fun enough that I was willing to overlook its flaws.

The books starts with an email exchange between two women who are best friends and work at a newspaper: it’s 1999 and the paper has only recently given email accounts to its employees, and Beth and Jennifer use theirs to have private/funny/fun conversations during their downtime. They know they’re not meant to be using their work email for personal chats like this, and they know everything they send is being monitored, but they’re not overly concerned about it. We then switch to Lincoln, who lives with his mom and works in the IT department at the same newspaper where Jennifer and Beth work. His job, in fact, is to monitor the company’s email: there’s a piece of software that flags messages containing certain words, or that exceed a certain size or frequency, and he’s supposed to review them and take the appropriate action, which is usually just giving the emailer(s) a warning. Beth and Jennifer’s messages keep getting flagged because they write to one another so much, but Lincoln is charmed by their friendship, and by the messages’ humor and kindness and heart, and he doesn’t send them a warning: instead, he finds himself looking forward to their exchanges being flagged so he can read them, so he can get a little window into their lives. He knows he should stop, but he can’t seem to make himself, and after a while he realizes he’s totally falling for Beth, despite the fact that she has a boyfriend (who isn’t reliably present for her in their relationship) and despite the fact that he’s never even seen her. Beth, meanwhile, has a chance to engage in some stalker-y behavior of her own as the story progresses, and does, which I guess is meant to balance things out? (It was funny to read this book relatively soon after reading Crosstalk by Connie Willis, which is also a book centered around co-workers and also features a basement-office-IT-guy who knows more than the female protagonist does/withholds information from her at some points. I was willing to not be bothered by it in that book, too.)

I like how we get to see Lincoln grow up over the course of this book: his mom is overbearing, and he dated someone in high school/early college who was way more assertive than he was and he’s never really gotten over that relationship even though he is now, like, 28, and he’s never really figured out who he is and what he wants. I like the depiction of the arrival of email and the Internet in a workplace that hasn’t had it before: as far as the company bosses are concerned, it’s suddenly “impossible to distinguish a roomful of people working diligently from a roomful of people taking the What-Kind-of-Dog-Am-I? online personality quiz,” and they’re dismayed about it (11). I was amused by the throwaway references to things like Zima and Orange Julius and appletinis—oh, 1999/2000. I also really like the beautiful descriptive writing about a crisp October day near the end of the book: big chunks of the book take place either in the newspaper offices or in people’s heads, and I appreciated the bits that were views of the outside world the characters are moving through.

Despite it coming highly recommended from a close friend, I found myself feeling sort of resistant to this book of 19 short stories at first. I think partly it was that I’d just read another collection of stories (Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith) and had very much enjoyed their mostly-first-person narratives, and the fact that this book is narrated in the third person initially felt flat, especially in the first story, where I found myself impatient with reading about what the characters looked like. Also, this book felt quite bleak: we see its characters in a whole lot of moments of self-hate and sadness and stasis, and I was feeling bleak enough myself before I started reading. But as I kept making my way through it, Core’s style grew on me. I can see why she has a back-cover blurb from Marie Calloway; these stories and the ones in Calloway’s what purpose did i serve in your life feel like they inhabit a similar sort of space populated by characters struggling with self-doubt and insecurity and want/need and the dynamics of dealing with other people. When I finished the book I read it again, and I liked it more on my second read—maybe because I knew what I was in for.

There is a lot in this book about being young and feeling stuck in your circumstances, and also a lot about being a writer and feeling stuck in your work, and also a lot about being human and feeling stuck in your self/in your desires, but there are also stories with a sense of possibility. In my favorite story, Historic Tree Nurseries, a queer couple consisting of a younger woman and an older woman drive to Ohio to adopt a dog: there is a lot of tension, but the ending is a moment of something like grace.

Even in the stories I liked less, there were a whole lot of good sentences/phrases: someone asks a character what it’s like being a teenager, and her response is that “Everyone wants what you have so they try to control you” (17). Another character is “addicted to her own charm” (29). Someone thinks about how she “hates the way people in her neighborhood seem to lecture each other on dates” (78). When two characters get on a plane after a series of stressful experiences, there’s this, which I like a whole lot:

And it was a surprising relief to enter the familiar capsule, to know that now nothing was expected of them. Even the lift-off was pleasant, easy to succumb to. They simply sat there, letting the rumbling machine have them, then the sky. (102-103)

And there is something really satisfying about a lot of the dialogue, which feels very funny and true, like this conversation between a pair of best friends in “Another Breed”:

Cory could have smiled or sobbed but did neither. “Am I a needy person?”
“Yes.”
“Am I the neediest person in your life?
“No. You’re just the most willing to express it.” (48)

When I finished reading Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith, I immediately went back to the beginning and started it again, which is something I’ve done before with books of poems but not so much with collections of short stories, but for some reason with this one I felt like I should, and I’m glad I did. I think partly I felt like I would enjoy this book more on a re-read, which is true: this may say more about my reading style and/or the kind of week I’d been having than about the book, which consists of 24 pieces, alternating between fiction (short stories) and nonfiction (brief pieces about the importance of public libraries, with input/personal stories from various writers and other people Smith knows). I liked some bits more than I liked others, and I feel like I would have appreciated this even more if I had a personal connection to any of the writers who serve as touchstones in some of the fictional pieces (DH Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Robert Herrick), but overall I really like Smith’s style, her allusiveness and wordplay and humor and smarts.

The fictional pieces in this book are themselves often about books, or about narrative, or about writers, or about memory, and are also often about possibility, about an ordinary day becoming something out of the ordinary in some way, and about the larger sense of opening or possibility that’s tied to memory and story and also to stepping outside normal routines. Highlights for me include the first story, “Last,” which starts with clichés about endings that turn literal and includes a whole bunch of wordplay and etymology,”The Definite Article,” which is about Regent’s Park and is full of really excellent details, and “The Human Claim,” which includes DH Lawrence and credit card fraud and Google Street View, and totally works. There are so many good phrases and descriptions and sentences and paragraphs in these and the rest of the stories in this book: a ride on a very crowded train, for example, is “an exercise in aloofness” (6). A mild winter day in London is “one of the days in January that spring sends ahead of itself” (157). And oh I love this sentence, about reading about Robert Herrick:

There wasn’t much known about this poet’s actual life, the book said, other than that his father killed himself by jumping out of a fourth-floor window, so the book was a lot about what it was like to be on the edge of poverty in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in the part of London called Cheapside, and about how the houses jutted out from themselves above their first floors, overhung themselves like mushrooms, or galleons, and how until 1661 the people in London had been duty-bound to see to the lighting of their own streets, required by law to hang out lit candles on dark nights. (174)

In the nonfiction bits, I loved Sophie Mayer’s description of the public library as “the best possible shared space, a community of consent — an anarcho-syndicalist collective where each person is pursuing their own aim (education, entertainment, affect, rest) with respect to others, through the best possible medium of the transmission of ideas, feelings, and knowledge: the book” (75-76). Also, this, from Emma Wilson, on going to the library as a child: “Choosing books each week was like laying out the dreams I could have” (124). I have had public library cards from the library wherever I’ve lived from childhood on; I got one in Cambridge, MA in college even though I was only there for a summer and I remember reading Philip Pullman and Walter Benjamin sprawled on the grass in the park; more recently, so many of the books I’ve read over the past decade-plus have been checked out from the Brooklyn Public Library, some that I’ve sought out specifically and others that I’ve just found by chance on the shelves. It’s preaching to the choir to tell me that public libraries expand horizons and provide important services for a huge range of people, but I did enjoy reading about other people’s library-moments and library-memories.

When I was about thirty pages into this book, I told my boyfriend I felt like it was going to be an unsubtle comedy, and I think it pretty much was, but that was totally what I was in the mood for. I wanted a fast-paced and plot-driven book that I was going to be totally engrossed in, and this book was exactly that: I regularly found myself completely absorbed in it on the subway or at lunchtime, and definitely stayed up past my bedtime reading it one night, only to decide to stop before the end so I’d have the pleasure of more of the book on my morning commute. This is Connie Willis in To Say Nothing of the Dog mode, more or less, and it’s a whole lot of fun.

The book is set in the near future and centers around characters working at Commspan, a smartphone manufacturer that’s trying to build the next big thing to try to compete with Apple. Briddey’s boyfriend, Trent, has just asked her to get an EED (empathy-enhancing device? the abbreviation isn’t spelled out anywhere that I noticed) with him: it’s a surgical procedure that will supposedly let the two of them sense each other’s feelings. He says he wants to propose to her, but wants to be connected via the EED first, so she’ll know how much he loves her. But, um, they’ve been dating for six weeks, and I decided on page 6, when it’s mentioned that Trent drives a Porsche, that he’s clearly going to be a jerk with ulterior motives. Briddey’s female co-workers are all telling her how excited they are for her, but another co-worker, C.B, a genius tech guy who works by himself in a lab in the company’s basement, keeps trying to tell her that maybe elective brain surgery is not such a great idea, for a whole lot of reasons. But Briddey and Trent get the surgery anyway, and it’s no surprise to C.B., or to the reader, that there are unintended consequences, which Briddey then has to deal with.

I had a few issues with Crosstalk, like the fact that by the end of the book I still had no idea what Briddey’s job actually was, despite that she’s apparently important enough to have an assistant. (Trent, meanwhile, has a secretary, which was a difference in terminology that felt gendered and weird.) And C.B. is apparently the only tech guy in the company? Or are there other tech people but he just works on his own? Also, this book is really straight: we hear about a bunch of other couples who have gotten the EED, and all of them seem to be male/female, which was a minor annoyance for me: it would have been easy to have the Commspan co-worker who tells Briddey how transformative the EED has been in her relationship to have been in a relationship with a woman rather than a man, or for any of the celebrities name-dropped to have been in a same-sex partnership. And some of the surgery’s unintended consequences and the explanations around them felt a bit thrown together or problematic, in ways it’s hard to talk about without being spoiler-y. But overall, I was so swept along by the plot that I didn’t really care.