Have I mentioned yet that 2013 has been, so far, an AMAZING year in books? I feel like everything I pick up is at least enjoyable and often pretty damn good. July’s major score was Richard Ford’s Canada, but a few other reads deserve mention.
I had high hopes for The Other Typist, and while not all of them were satisfied, there’s no denying the book is a lot of fun. Our narrator is Rose, who types transcripts of police interrogations, which are then used as evidence in court. “For the most part,” she tells us, “we typists are expected to be incapable of mistakes. It is a curious phenomenon that whenever something is typed up it becomes, for better or for worse, the truth.” The phenomenon becomes even more curious as we realize that Rose may not be entirely reliable, and that we are not sure how much of her story can be accepted as truth. The plot kicks into motion as a new typist is hired at Rose’s precinct. Odalie is young, attractive, and daring. Her ease around men and her bobbed black hair are simultaneously shocking and fascinating to Rose, who has not quite caught up to the fast living of the 1924 setting. Odalie seems to return Rose’s interest, and they become friends and roommates, but Rose quickly realizes that Odalie’s easy manner is just a step away from reckless, and that she knows less about her new friend than she thinks.
The reader also finds Odalie fascinating, so we can easily understand Rose’s burgeoning obsession with her despite the aura of danger that hangs around her. Although Rose herself is prudish, snobbish, and judgmental, her caustic takes on various characters are truly snort-inducing. Of her horrible roommate pre-Odalie, Rose writes, “She smiled– too widely. It was the craven smile of a nervous Dalmatian.” Her insights on her job are also intelligent, and I appreciated her observations on being a working woman in a male-dominated field: “..[I]t is interesting to contemplate the number of hands– feminine hands, no less –and machines that must handle the content of the confession until it translates itself into a verdict and, finally, a sentence.” Most men in Rose’s world don’t think of women as being particularly competent, yet they are somehow comfortable with allowing them to hold the record of truth. Perhaps this is because, as Rose notes, “[W]e typists are considered an extension of the typewriter… we are expected to become inhuman… [W]e are thought to be mere receptors, passive and wonderfully incapable of deviation.” It is Odalie’s deviation from the script Rose has adhered to that grants her the power to draw the once-meek Rose through sleazy speakeasies, Long Island beach mansions, and dark alleys.
It’s difficult to make very specific criticisms of the book without delving into spoilers, so I’ll just say that there are some choices Rindell makes regarding Rose’s motivations and the ending of the book that make the final result less satisfying than it could have been. However, it’s a smart and fun book, especially for summer, and I hear there’s going to be a movie version within the next few years! It’s going to be hard to avoid spoilers after that…
Code Name Verity. Okay. Okay. This book was awesome, and it’s nearly impossible for me to tell you anything about it without spoiling it for you. It’s been marketed as YA, because the two main characters are young women, but like most great YA, it’s really just an excellent book in which the two main characters are young. Maddie is a pilot and her best friend, Queenie, is a spy in WWII. Queenie is captured early on by Nazis when Maddie crash-lands their plane. Queenie is tortured and forced to write a confession. During her confession, she writes how she and Maddie met and became best friends, and it’s just a wonderfully involving and exhilarating story, even against the backdrop of ugliness that was WWII. If it seems a bit slow at first, for the love of Jeebus, keep reading, because Shit Gets Real(er) halfway through the book. Like another great book this year, Eleanor and Park, Code Name Verity is the kind of book that makes me think it’s a bad idea for me to keep reading on public transportation, because I laugh, I cry, and people just think I’m crazy. (Not that they’re wrong…) It’s the kind of book that makes me wish it had been around when I was about 12, because it would have gotten into my consciousness in the way Katherine Patterson’s books, or Bette Greene’s Summer of My German Soldier did, to the point where I remember them more clearly than books I read even just a year ago. As it is, I will have to re-read Code Name Verity a few times to really let it soak into my thickened skin.
Lexicon, what am I gonna do with you? You were so much fun to read. You had a kickin’ main character in Emily Ruff, the lone wolf with a bad attitude who discovers that she has a very particular set of skills. Emily is taken to a special school (no, not Professor X’s School for Gifted Youngsters) where she is taught that there are only 228 different types of personalities, and that each personality has a certain set of sounds that, spoken by someone like Emily, will bypass the conscious thinking mechanisms and make a person do whatever the speaker commands. Emily’s training entails not only learning the sounds for each personality type and learning to assess a person quickly, but also learning to become as unreadable as possible so that she herself cannot be “compromised”. She’s not really so good at that being unreadable part.
Did I mention that she’s being trained to work as a member of an elite government organization that uses their powers for not-goodery? And that words are seen as being so powerful that people with Emily’s talents are called “poets” and are named for famous writers like T.S. Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, and William Butler Yeats? There’s no way I wasn’t going to like this book.
But it disappoints in that weird way that a good book can, when you fully expect the author to shift gears from Cool to Kickass partway through the book, and that shift never happens. First, the purpose of the agency Emily is recruited for is never fully explained. It’s just kind of… there. Two of the characters are compelling, but also frustratingly opaque. And the deeper mythology of the lexicon is only ever hinted at. This is not acceptable in a book in which you have already asked your reader to suspend her disbelief. I’m already giving you my credulity. I want my payoff. The central concept in Lexicon is so cool that I wanted it to be LOCKED DOWN so that I could really believe in it and see all the implications and fully respect Max Barry’s worldbuilding. I respect an author’s need to not give everything away at once. But when you have an idea as great as Lexicon, your possibilities are so various that you can give more than Barry gives us in this book. I hope that he writes a sequel, and that I get what I’m missing in that book, because I’ll definitely read it.