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What to Read Next (No. 279): Unexpected Consequences
Happy Friday, readers!
Yesterday was the last day of school for our oldest kiddo, officially marking the start of our summer break. We have a few things planned, but overall there’s a quieter summer in store than previous years. It probably won’t equate to more reading — there will be three kids constantly running around the house in seemingly perpetual daylight, after all — but hopefully I can stay on track and finish at least one book a week.
Novels like those featured today certainly help that pace. Both of them are energetic, smart, and totally unique page-turners that revolve around a central theme of unexpected consequences.
One quick note before we get started: Amazon unexpectedly canceled my affiliate account. I’m not sure why; their affiliate guidelines are very hard to parse out and their customer service for such matters is garbage. So I’m going back to Bookshop.org links. Every time you make a purchase through one of my links, I get a 10% commission.
A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne
“I just need to be a writer, that’s all. It’s all I’ve ever needed to be.”
John Boyne is one of those authors I’ve heard a lot about — The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, etc. — but hadn’t ever read before picking up A Ladder to the Sky a few weeks ago.
I didn’t know anything about this particular book before grabbing it from the library without so much as reading the jacket. I’ve been doing more of that lately and it’s been rather fun. With this particular book, I struck gold.
It falls into a niche category of mystery novels that I’ll never pass up: the bookish thriller, in which the literary world plays a starring role and main characters are authors. The Plot, The Shadow of the Wind, The Historian, etc.
In A Ladder to the Sky, young and ambitious Maurice Swift wants nothing more than to be an author. He can write pretty well, but can’t come up with a story idea to save his life. So, over the course of decades, he figures out ways to steal plots from those around him.
It’s a slow burn of a thriller that really picks up speed — and intensity — with every chapter. Boyne also expertly finds a way to ask some big questions about literary provenance and grand ambitions:
"And you've heard the old proverb about ambition, haven't you?"
He shook his head.
"That it's like setting a ladder to the sky. A pointless waste of energy.”
This is a book that has gotten better in my memory in the few weeks that have passed since I read it, and it’s sitting somewhere between 4.5 and 5 stars for me. I highly recommend A Ladder to the Sky and can’t wait to read a few of Boyne’s other books.
Crosstalk by Connie Willis
I wasn’t familiar with Connie Willis until I started exploring sci-fi a bit more this year. Though she has flown well under the mainstream radar, Willis is an absolute legend in the genre, racking up more major awards — eleven Hugos and seven Nebulas — than any other writer ever. How had I never heard of her?!
I ended up starting with one of her lesser-known novels: Crosstalk. It was recommended to me by a reader of this newsletter and I can’t resist a Big Tech story, so I didn’t hesitate to grab it from the library.
Here’s the premise:
In the near future, Briddey Flannigan undergoes a popular procedure to boost empathy with her boyfriend, Trent, anticipating a stronger emotional bond before their potential marriage. However, things veer off course when she unexpectedly develops a profound connection with a completely different person instead.
It’s feels like a contemporary novel with its wit, drama, and bit of romance, but also like a prescient sci-fi cautionary tale. Willis strikes a remarkable balance between those tones, giving it a unique flare that I haven’t really encountered before.
Though she gets a little flak for it in the Goodreads reviews, I think Willis does a great job creating a sense of how frenetic modern communication is — the notifications from messaging and social media apps are endless. There were times I was almost annoyed by that unending stream, but I think that’s the entire point Willis is trying to make.
Crosstalk felt a touch long, but I really enjoyed it overall. The action was propulsive, the twisty plot was effective (even though some of it was predictable), and the thought experiment was — and is — worth spending time with.
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