Crosstalk by Connie Willis
After a minor medical procedure intended to make Briddey Flannigan and her boyfriend Trent able to sense each other’s emotions, Briddey hears a man’s voice, and panics. She’s hearing the thoughts of C.B. Schwartz, a nerdy coworker at Commspan. C.B. tries to convince Briddey that she’s now telepathic, and that no one else must know. Trent wants help to develop a new phone app, while Briddey just wants some peace and quiet, unlikely given her overly intrusive Irish-American family and gossipy coworkers. Briddey’s young niece Maeve gets involved as C.B. teaches Briddey how to quiet her mind before Trent and their doctor find out what really happened. Fans of slapstick romantic comedy will enjoy this fast-paced romp, which skewers our society’s dependence on digital technology and avoidance of self-reflection and true intimacy. The author nicely contrasts internet dating sites with the simple pleasures of reading in a library surrounded by others, or taking a walk late at night.
Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris
I was charmed by this short and funny memoir by a copy editor at The New Yorker. Between explaining the eccentricities of spelling and grammar at The New Yorker and a chapter titled “Ballad of a Pencil Junkie”, Norris entertains and educates. Gender in the English language, how to decide if commas in a sentence should stay, and an enlightening look at the history of compound words which may or may not be separated by a hyphen are a few of the topics covered. Anyone who has groaned at the sight of a sign boldly stating: “Buckle Up! Its the Law” will likely enjoy Norris’ personal and literary anecdotes; I certainly did.
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
Elderly Britons Axl and Beatrice are a devoted couple who decide to leave their cave dwelling to go on a journey to visit their son in another village. Why leave now? Beatrice is clearly upset at losing the privilege of a candle in their room at night, and would like advice for a pain in her side. We gradually learn that there is a mist of forgetfulness throughout the land. What secrets are Axl and Beatrice forgetting, and is there a valid reason for the mist? Axl begins to worry that Beatrice will stop loving him if she remembers their past, and they both wonder if their long-lost son will welcome their visit. Traveling slowly, they encounter wonders, terrors, and adventures, but the pacing never increases in this dreamlike fable for grown-ups, set in the fifth or sixth century, decades after the death of Arthur, a leader of the Britons. There is an uneasy peace between the Celtic Britons and the Saxon invaders. In a Saxon village, Axl and Beatrice hear of a boy stolen by ogres. Edwin is rescued by Wistan, and the four journey together for a while. Wistan, a Saxon warrior, is determined to find and slay the dragon Querig, but elderly knight Gawain claims that quest for himself. A leisurely read, this is a beautiful portrait of an elderly couple and their quest to remember their past, no matter what happens.
Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton
A beautiful book about isolation and connectedness at what may be the end of the world. Astronomer Augustine, in his seventies, is the last scientist left at an observatory on Ellesemere Island, in the Canadian high arctic. It’s midnight all the time in the Arctic winter, but that also makes for spectacular views of the Northern Lights. After a rumor of war, when the other scientists were evacuated, he finds young Iris hiding in the observatory. Augustine has always put his career first and his relationships with his colleagues and family a distant second, so it’s a big adjustment to relate to the mostly silent girl. Together, they wait for spring and sunrise to arrive, and then journey to a well-stocked camp at Lake Hazen. During the long arctic nights and later the long summer days, Augustine scans the radio bands, looking to connect with someone, anyone else. Eventually he hears the voice of Sully, an astronaut in the spaceship Aether, on the way home from a voyage to Jupiter and its moons. Sully has also put her family second in her quest for the stars, and she and her shipmates are haunted by the continued radio silence from Mission Control. Augustine has two bouts with fever, and suffers from arthritis. He worries about what will happen to Iris, but doesn’t seem that interested in the rest of the world, unlike the crew on Aether, anxious about what they will find as they approach earth, and how to live in a world gone dark and quiet. This is one of those novels likely to stay with the reader well after the book is finished, with vividly drawn settings, complex characters, and thought-provoking scenarios. Readalikes include Station Eleven by Hilary St. John Mandel, and The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey, although these two books are very different from each other.
Not Fade Away: A Memoir of Senses Lost and Found by Rebecca Alexander
In this inspiring memoir, Rebecca Alexander tells her story of life lived to the fullest while simultaneously losing most of her vision and hearing. Rebecca has a vary rare form of Usher’s Syndrome, which was diagnosed when she was a college student. A recent cochlear implant seems to have given her back much of her hearing, but at 37, she has only a narrow field of vision and no idea how long it will last. Nevertheless, she travels, teaches spin classes, dates, plays with her dog, walks around New York City, and works as a psychotherapist. Sarcastic and funny, Rebecca describes her life, with all its calamities and joys, and how she seeks to find her own unique identity, ask for help when needed, be a visible face for people with often invisible disabilities, and enjoy experiences even if they scare her. Since this book was published in 2014, she has climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with her sister and stepmother. A remarkable life, well-told. For more about Rebecca, visit her website.
The White Mirror by Elsa Hart
Stranded by snow at the Tibetan manor of Dhosa, former imperial librarian Li Du, storyteller Hamza, and the rest of their caravan learn the stories of Dhosa’s family, meet several other visitors, and visit a nearby temple, where Dhamo, an elderly monk, painted religious art. On the bridge leading to the manor, the caravan discovered Dhamo’s body, a possible suicide, with the image of a white mirror painted on his chest. A tax inspector, a spy, another artist, and a young monk are included in the large cast of characters. A clever puzzle, and the beautiful setting, complete with hot springs, a painted cave, and a stunning view of the Himalayas, will reward patient readers in the sequel to Jade Dragon Mountain.
Silver on the Road, by Laura Anne Gilman
Isobel is turning 16 and has to decide if she wants to work for the boss or leave the Territory, a reimagined American West full of magic. She has grown up in a saloon, where the Devil lets you gamble at the tables, but is willing to make a bargain if desired. And the Devil always keeps his word and honors his bargains. Isobel decides to stay, but instead is sent out on the road on horseback with mentor Gabriel to learn the Territory and to become the Devil’s Left Hand, a job that doesn’t come with a manual. Isobel and Gabriel encounter talking animals, a traveling magician, shamans, terrifying supernatural winds, and small towns completely empty of people. Young as she is, Isobel needs to take responsibility and find out what is going on in the Territory. A sequel, The Cold Eye, is being published in January, and I’m intrigued to find out what Isobel will encounter next.