By Max Barry

(Penguin, $26.95, 400 pages)

Who is this author?

Max Barry, an Australian writer with a taste for satire and a love of dark, dark comedy, displays his talents in his fifth novel, “Lexicon.” His earlier books are “Syrup” (1999), “Jennifer Government” (2003), “Company” (2006), and “Machine Man” (2011). His ability to spin tales that make caustic cultural commentaries through absurd situations has earned him comparisons with such authors as Robert Sheckley, William Tenn, Kurt Vonnegut, Will Self, Christopher Moore and George Saunders – company any writer would be proud to keep.

What is this book about?

They call them “poets.” But these graduates of an elite private school in Virginia aren’t writing verse. Instead, they are taught to hone their ability to persuade others, using words as though they were weapons and bending the minds of those who hear them.  By figuring out their listeners’ personality types, they can “unlock” their minds and manipulate their thinking.

In Barry’s new thriller, a mysterious organization runs the school and is grooming a powerfully talented student, Emily, who is a runaway and street grafter. She is their star and is taught to never let anyone else into her own mind, for fear of being “persuaded” herself, against her will. That works, until Emily does the unthinkable: she falls in love. Meanwhile, another character, Wil, is introduced. Kidnapped in an airport by two men, he is told he is a player in a secret war and that he has a mind that cannot be “unlocked.” The story then gest weirder and more dangerous, as the existence of  secret of a word that can kill is revealed.

  Why you’ll like it:

We’ve heard a lot this year about privacy, identity and the uses – some good, some dangerous – of data-collection, and this book delves deep into these issues. Is our culture brainwashing us through marketing, “false flag” manipulation of events and other forms of deceit? What explains why people vote against their best interests, willingly buy shoddy goods or follow demagogues who eventually implode? Can a shadowy paranormal conspiracy actually fool most of the people most of the time? Barry, in this far-from-ordinary thriller, says yes, they really can. And he presents this chilling idea with his typical pitch-black wit.

What others are saying:

The Washington Post says:  “Once you accept the premise of Lexicon…this is an extremely slick and readable thriller…The conspiracy thriller is, of course, a common genre these days. In some ways it’s an attractive notion that there might be a secret society nestling within the visible world, perceptible only to initiates…Barry’s particular addition to the genre is a corrosive wit. “

Says Publishers Weekly: “The fate of humanity is at stake in this ambitious satirical thriller from Australian author Barry. Picked off the streets of San Francisco after displaying a “natural aptitude” for persuasion, 16-year-old magician/hustler Emily Ruff joins a group of prodigies at “the Academy,” where “poets” learn the magic of controlling others’ minds with words. Meanwhile, hapless Wil Parke, the key player in an internal war between highly trained poets called Eliot and Woolf, is the only person known to survive the infamous “bareword” Woolf set loose in Broken Hill, Australia, two years before—an event that killed thousands and wiped Wil’s memory clean. Eliot believes Wil to be the only one capable of stopping this word that “can persist… like an echo,” and is determined to use Wil in his quest to elucidate the word’s elemental code. Emily’s story and Wil’s story converge in a violent denouement that amuses as much as it shocks.”

 “…An absolutely first-rate, suspenseful thriller with convincing characters who invite readers’ empathy and keep them turning pages until the satisfying conclusion,” says Booklist.

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Modern-day sorcerers fight a war of words in this intensely analytical yet bombastic thriller. … In a deft narrative move, Barry parallels two distinct storylines before bringing them together with jaw-dropping surprises. In the first, a carpenter named Wil is jumped in an airport bathroom by a pair of brutal agents who kill his girlfriend and kidnap him for reasons unknown. In a storyline a few years back, we meet a smart, homeless grifter named Emily Ruff on the streets of San Francisco. …Emily is invited to train under the auspices of a mysterious international syndicate known as “The Poets.” The shady peddlers of influence and power force Emily to study words as if they were a source of incredible power–and in the hands of gifted prodigies like Emily, they are. What could have been a sly attempt to satirize postmodern marketing and social media becomes something of a dark fantasy as couplets intended merely to influence become spell-like incantations with the power to kill. …An up-all-night thriller for freaks and geeks who want to see their wizards all grown up in the real world and armed to the teeth in a bloody story.”

“What if there was a word that could compel anyone to do anything? That’s the premise of Barry’s new novel… which posits a secret society of “poets” who collect and wield special words to control others. Emily Ruff, a teenager living on the street, has been recruited by the organization but leaves in seeming disgrace. Years later, Wil Parke is caught in a firefight between the factions—over him. He is the only survivor of a horrifying event unleashed by an ultimate word of power. But there is a deeper connection between Wil and Emily and the organization that comes between them. While that link isn’t hard to figure out, Barry keeps the tension high as another poet, Eliot, tries to stop the unfolding destruction. Barry’s fear of conspiracies and the corporatization of society are in play here, along with a new focus on his exploration of power and corruption—religion. VERDICT Lexicon isn’t as satirical as Barry’s other works, but it is a scary and satisfying blend of thriller, dystopia, and horror,” says Library Journal

When is it available?

Feeling persuaded to read “Lexicon?” it’s at the Downtown Hartford Public Library, and its Barbour, Dwight and Mark Twain branches.

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