Bellwether by Connie Willis, narrated by Kate Reading

bellwetherWhy I read it:  This was an Audible 2-for-1 sale recently so it cost me half a credit (or about $5.50).  I loved To Say Nothing of the Dog (scroll down for my brief review) and I’d heard this was funny, with a little romance too.

What it’s about: (from Goodreads)  Pop culture, chaos theory and matters of the heart collide in this unique novella from the Hugo and Nebula winning author of Doomsday Book.

Sandra Foster studies fads and their meanings for the HiTek corporation. Bennet O’Reilly works with monkey group behavior and chaos theory for the same company. When the two are thrust together due to a misdelivered package and a run of seemingly bad luck, they find a joint project in a flock of sheep. But series of setbacks and disappointments arise before they are able to find answers to their questions.

What worked for me (and what didn’t):  Oh, this book was so much fun!  I don’t know really that it is properly categorised as science fiction – it’s more science geek but there’s no time travel or alien technology.  The book is firmly grounded in the 1990s. In some ways it is a kind of fairy tale, but what it mostly is it fascinating and laugh out loud funny.

The book is short – the unabridged audio runs for six and a half hours – and each chapter is introduced by reference to a particular fad, the period for which it was popular, what it was, who did it and why it died out. Because Sandra (the first person narrator) is a scientist and the book deals with scientific discovery and how it is often accident or serendipity, the book also contains lots of interesting factoids – all of which I assume are true (or, at least, were thought to be true when the book was written in 1996).  Some of the things I already knew – for instance, that Alexander Fleming’s father worked on the Churchill estate and rescued a young Winston from drowning in the lake on the property.  In gratitude, the Churchill’s paid for Alexander to attend medical school.  I think I also knew that in WWII Winston Churchill’s life was saved by penicillin.  And I knew that Fleming’s discovery of penicillin was accidental and involved an opened window and an improperly sealed petrie dish.  What I didn’t know, was that Fleming was only in microbiology because he was a good shooter.  After he graduated, St. Mary’s were desperate to keep Fleming for the rifle team, there were no spots open in surgery so they gave him a job in microbiology.   Many different kinds of invention and scientific discovery are referenced throughout the book and those bits were both entertaining and fascinating.

Sandra’s and Bennett’s own discoveries, scientific and otherwise, are the main story in the book. The hilarious bureaucracy they have to deal with, the administrative assistant from hell, Flip, who is a trendsetter and wears duct tape accessories and has an “i” branded on her forehead, the sheep and their tendency to butt into Bennett, chaos theory and fad research, all combine to create a charming and funny story which was a delight from start to finish.

The narration was superb – Kate Reading’s comic timing was excellent and her accents and characters voices stellar.  I’m sure I would have laughed had I read the book but I think I laughed harder listening to it.

The science information is all accessible.  Listeners who have had any experience with strange acronyms, staff meetings with sensitivity exercises, and voluminous paperwork will be sure to get all the jokes. While the story is firmly set in the 1990s and is somewhat dated because of it, the references to what’s changed made me a little nostalgic. The rest of it translates very well to a 21st century audience and the writing style doesn’t seem dated at all.

The romance is very gentle but there is a happy ending – so I’m counting it!

It’s a fabulous book.  Highly recommended.

Grade: A

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3 comments on “Bellwether by Connie Willis, narrated by Kate Reading

  1. Chris

    I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Such a delightful read. 🙂

  2. Kaetrin

    @Chris: Yes, it was such fun – so many laugh out loud moments – especially when the sheep kept butting Bennett in the groin. *snort*

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