Review: The History of Bees by Maja Lunde

history of beesThe Premise: England, 1851. William is a biologist and seed merchant, who sets out to build a new type of beehive—one that will give both him and his children honour and fame.

United States, 2007. George is a beekeeper and fights an uphill battle against modern farming, but hopes that his son can be their salvation.

China, 2098. Tao hand paints pollen onto the fruit trees now that the bees have long since disappeared. When Tao’s young son is taken away by the authorities after a tragic accident—and is kept in the dark about his whereabouts and condition—she sets out on a grueling journey to find out what happened to him.

Thoughts: This was a really fascinating read, with plenty to engage and scare the reader in its presentation of a bee-free near future and its catastrophic effects on Earth’s population. I have had a slightly weird amount of interest in bees ever since reading Laline Paull’s The Bees, and I’ve also spent a disproportionate amount of time Googling bee-related facts for my daughter (I don’t really know why. We just talk about bees a lot). It seems insane to me that we are so reliant on bees for pollination, and how screwed we’ll be if they die out. This book played on all these fears and scared me quite a lot.

Divided into 3 alternating narratives, the book encompasses 200 years and 3 continents, from a man in 19th century England trying to invent a perfect bee hive, via an apiarist battling to keep his bees in 2007, to a futuristic China where a mother describes a life of hand-pollination and unending drudgery.  Inevitably, one narrative strand fails to engage quite as strongly as the others, but the novel never loses pace or interest; I was engrossed in Tao’s futuristic storyline, and Lunde does a great job of setting up the complexities of the society she lives in, with all its restrictions and rules. The most recognisable of the time frames, focusing on George in 2007, was also very effective, reading like an Annie Proulx story (this is obviously a great thing). I felt like the historical plotline was a little dull by comparison, and didn’t really fit in with the others in terms of urgency, but maybe that’s the point: highlighting that bees were taken for granted and misunderstood until it was too late.

In Conclusion: Billed as being in the same vein as Station Eleven and Never Let Me Go, The History of Bees is, like these novels, a very immersive and exquisitely written book with plenty of elements of dystopia in the future setting. I found it hugely enjoyable, intriguing, eye-opening and well-written. Lunde cleverly takes a prospect that could well happen in the loss of bees, and invests it with humanity, emotion and hope. I really recommend this book.

Top Ten Tuesday: Forgotten Favourites

This week’s TTT, hosted as always by The Broke and The Bookish, is about throwbacks; I’m listing some preblogging favourites which I know I loved when I read them but, annoyingly, can’t remember much about now.

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
Obviously I am obsessed with everything Atwood writes; this mythology-inspired novel is beautiful and I optimistically bought a copy last year, planning to reread it. This hasn’t happened yet.

The Rotters’ Club by Jonathan Coe
I can’t really remember anything about this book, which is very annoying as I do know I liked it a lot.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
A massive book which I would probably be put off reading now, due to its potential for preventing me from reading a book a day.

Goodbye Johnny Thunders by Tania Kindersley
I was OBSESSED with this book circa 2006. It is very emo and angsty and features a woman moping around over an unreliable musician boyfriend, which is the kind of life I aspired to when I was 23.

Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married by Marian Keyes
I still remember a worrying amount about this book. My mum got me into reading Marian Keyes as a teenager when I’d read everything in the library and it was cheaper to get me to read her books than letting me buy my own. I loved this book and identified very strongly with Lucy.

The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie
I still sometimes claim this is my favourite book despite not having read it for at least 8 years. I have strong intentions to rectify this in the next few months.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Another frequently claimed favourite, I read this at university which was a depressingly long time ago.

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
I adored this book. I’m quite partial to anything about twins and I loved how creepy and weird this was. Obviously Time Traveler’s Wife is great but I do prefer a book that doesn’t make me nearly drown myself in tears.

How to Talk to a Widower by Jonathan Tropper
On the subject of drowning in tears, this book upset me so much I can’t believe I’m even talking about it. I have a very strong belief that it needs to be a film with Chris Evans as the lead.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
I recommend this book all the time despite not having read it since about 2010 and having forgotten all the details except for the fact that its based on Hamlet.

Review: American War by Omar El Akkad

american war.pngIf I’d read American War two years ago, I probably would have thought, “well, that was a terrifying but, thankfully, fantastical and needlessly pessimistic vision of the future.” Then I would have thought about rainbows and cupcakes and those other kinds of things we could afford to occupy ourselves with in 2015.

Reading American War in the current political climate (as well as the more literal one) is, however, a completely different experience. In 2017, as hurricanes ravage the USA, the Arctic melts and global society seems to be becoming ever more divided, Omar El Akkad’s vision of the future actually begins to look horrifyingly likely.

In 2074, civil war rages in the USA, with Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia having seceded from the rest of the nation over a government order to end the use of fossil fuels. South Carolina is a walled-off, almost-zombie-like state. Florida is underwater. Mexico has annexed much of the western half of the USA. Sarat is only 6 when war breaks out, but soon finds herself at the centre of the action, when her father is killed and the remaining members of the family are forced into a refugee camp, where their fate is sealed as Sarat is radicalised in the fight against the north.

I sometimes wonder what it says about me that so many of my favourite books (The Handmaid’s Tale, Borne and Station Eleven, to name three) tell of destroyed nations and apocalyptic futures. At times when I immerse myself too deeply in real-life events, particularly in recent weeks when North Korea has been dominating the news cycles, I become really quite anxious, keeping myself awake worrying about what the future holds. Previously, I perhaps would have been able to dismiss American War as unrealistic, but it seems frankly ridiculous to do so now. It’s a brilliant, brilliant book, with an astonishing level of detail in its depiction of how the world came to this imagined point, but it’s a truly terrifying vision if you allow yourself to believe in its plausibility.

Sometimes in books that cover imagined political events, I find that the background isn’t explained in enough detail, with writers perhaps fearing boring the reader with too much dry detail. In American War, Omar El Akkad offers a masterclass in how to do this in a comprehensive but completely compelling way. The details offered a believable, with everything backed up and linked so coherently it’s actually frightening. Characters aren’t lost or neglected in all this political depth and action, however, with Sarat and her family forming a compelling centre to the plot.

I can’t recommend American War enough; it’s a thrilling and audacious read, entirely compelling and never dry or hard work despite its serious and often horrendous subject matter. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year and will stay with me for a long time.

Review: We Shall Not All Sleep by Estep Nagy

we shall not all sleep.pngThe Premise: (borrowed from NetGalley) It’s 1964. The Hillsingers and the Quicks have shared the small Maine island of Seven for generations. But though technically family–Jim Hillsinger and Billy Quick married Park Avenue sisters Lila and Hannah Blackwell–they do not mix. Now, on the anniversary of Hannah’s death, Lila feels grief pulling her toward Billy. And Jim, a spy recently ousted from the CIA on suspicion of treason, decides to carry out the threat his wife has explicitly forbidden: to banish their youngest son, the twelve-year-old Catta, to the neighboring island of Baffin for twenty-four hours in an attempt to make a man out of him.

With their elders preoccupied, the Hillsinger and Quick children run wild, playing violent games led by Catta’s sadistic older brother James. The island manager Cyrus and the servants tend to the families while preparing for the Migration, a yearly farming ritual that means one thing to their employers, and something very different to them.

Thoughts: I love a family saga, which is why I was interested in reading We Shall Not All Sleep. The idea of two interconnected families and a secluded island made me anticipate a kind of grown-up We Were Liars, and there are certainly aspects of the story which do recall that book; the gradually unravelling secrets and revelations make the latter part of We Shall Not All Sleep far more engaging than its opening chapters, which I struggled to get into.

There’s plenty that’s intriguing about Nagy’s novel. The island itself is interesting; it’s almost as if normal social rules don’t apply on Seven, with children left to their own devices in their own house, and adults only interfering in the lives of their offspring to dump them on spooky islands. I remain confused about why this happened, to be honest.

I became particularly engaged in the story when the flashbacks began to reveal what happened to Billy Quick’s wife; the addition of a Communist witch-hunt in the background added intrigue and impetus to the story and I found myself most interested when the author took me back to the past. The way in which all this ends up influencing the present is clever too, and the whole atmosphere of the novel is made creepier and more effective once this background story is fleshed out.

The problems the characters experience in We Shall Not All Sleep are often the result of their immense privilege, which did make me roll my eyes occasionally, but the occasional appearances of the servants (yes, there are servants. These people are like Jay Gatsby but less self-aware) created a voice of reason with which I could identify. The close juxtaposition of such contrasting characters and world-views definitely adds to the claustrophobic tension of the novel.

In Conclusion: while not a perfect novel, there’s certainly enough secrecy, intrigue and drama in We Shall Not All Sleep to keep even the hardest-to-please reader interested. There were aspects I would have liked to see more of (i.e. more Communism, please), but, overall, it’s a well-balanced book and one that holds the reader’s attention.