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.

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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.

YA Review: Moonrise by Sarah Crossan

moonriseThe Premise: Joe hasn’t seen his brother for ten years, and it’s for the most brutal of reasons. Ed is on death row. But now Ed’s execution date has been set, and this might be the last summer they have together.

Thoughts: Sarah Crossan has a proven record of writing things that break my heart a little bit. I can’t walk past the bookshelf where Apple and Rain sits without having a little sniffle and please don’t ever make me talk about One unless you’re prepared to watch me rock gently and weep for several hours. Moonrise fits firmly into this tearjerker category, with the story of Joe’s struggle to process his brother’s fate creating plenty of pathos.

As with One and Crossan’s other verse novel, We Come Apart, the nature of the poetry in Moonrise only amplifies the emotive aspects of the story, particularly when Joe dwells on his ambivalent feelings towards Ed and the catastrophic effects of his arrest on the family as a whole. Just seventeen as his brother faces the lethal injection, Joe has had the kind of fictional life that might seem overly tragedy-filled, but which is dealt with in such a nuanced way here that the reader can only sympathise.

I’m always interested in YA novels that deal with difficult or political issues, and Moonrise does both; through Ed’s situation, Crossan questions the morality and logic of the death penalty as well as detailing some of the legal processes involved, with various appeals and reflections on Ed’s initial arrest and court case.  Joe’s family is just getting by financially, and so Crossan adds another layer of topical plotting here, subtly conveying the idea that, the poorer you are, the less likely you are to be able to pursue justice.

In Conclusion: I thought Moonrise was really pretty stunning. It hit me in all the right places emotionally, it’s realistic despite its often dreamy verse, and it’s a story that’s compelling, relevant and not often explored in YA. What impresses me with Crossan’s writing is that she’s able to upset and challenge her reader without her books being depressing or mawkish. Moonrise is no exception, and it’s a book I absolutely recommend.

The Monthly Round-Up: August

 

  1. Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge
    Hard-hitting and clever book about gun deaths in the US, with Younge selecting a single day and exploring each of the youths killed by guns on that day. Inevitably, it’s a depressing read, but a forceful and compelling one too.
  2. Infinite Stars edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt
    An anthology of space opera novellas and short stories. I enjoyed the standalones and some of the stories which form part of existing fictional worlds, but a lot of it went over my head.
  3. The Growing Season by Helen Sedgwick
    Peculiar book about a future in which all babies are grown in pouches rather than the womb.
  4. My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece by Annabel Pitcher
    This was very sad but funny at the same time; it’s the second book by the author that I’ve read and I am a fan. It’s about a 10 year old boy whose sister was killed in a terrorist attack, and whose family continues to struggle with this 5 years later.
  5. How to be Both by Ali Smith
    How to put this diplomatically? I hated this book. I got on tolerably with the first half, about a teenage girl whose mother has died, but what the actual hell was going on in the second half? Seriously, where was the punctuation? Very annoying book.
  6. The Break by Marian Keyes
    My first Keyes book in years and I loved it. It made me cry. Quite a lot.
  7. Gotham City Sirens by Paul Dini
    I really liked this collected volume of the Sirens comics, featuring Harley Quinn, Catwoman and Poison Ivy.
  8. Meet Me in the Bathroom by Lizzy Goodman
    Enthralling oral history of the New York music scene from 2001 to 2011.
  9. What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
    Excellent collection of short stories; review here.
  10. The Unaccompanied by Simon Armitage
    Not my favourite of Armitage’s collections, but I have just booked tickets to see him in October so I’ll probably need to reread this.
  11. A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa
    Absorbing Angola-set story of a woman who walled herself into her apartment for decades.
  12. Invictus by Ryan Graudin
    Superb time-travel YA by the author of Wolf by Wolf. This is really fun and I very much recommend.
  13. This Book Will (Help You) Change the World by Sue Turton
    Guide for teens wanting to get involved in politics or activism. A useful introduction to politics if you don’t already know much.
  14. Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
    This was a reread because I wanted to check whether calling this one of my favourite books is still accurate. It is.
  15. Kid Authors by David Stabler, illustrated by Doogie Horner
    I really enjoyed this very cute book about the early lives of famous authors: so much so that I immediately bought the previous titles in the series about presidents and artists.
  16. A Place Called Perfect by Helena Duggan
    A good MG mystery set in a seemingly utopian town which, surprisingly, isn’t quite what it seems.
  17. Beloved by Toni Morrison
    I’d read a few Morrison novels but not this one. It was brilliant but very disturbing (which shouldn’t have surprised me).
  18. A Semi Definitive List of Worst Nightmares by Krystal Sutherland
    Entertaining YA about a seemingly cursed family, although I did wonder whether the humour was appropriate for the subject matter.
  19. The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night by Jen Campbell
    Excellent, weird collection of short stories inspired by or featuring ideas from fairy tales.
  20. The Next Factory of the World by Irene Yuan Sun
    A slightly left-choice of book; this non-fiction book is about Chinese investment and influence in Africa. It was interesting, although quite one-sided.
  21. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
    Booker longlisted and extremely good novel about terrorism, race and family.
  22. Freshers by Lucy Ivison and Tom Ellen
    Hilarious and painfully true YA novel about freshers’ week and all the horror it entails. I related to this book a little too much, and not just because it’s set in York, which was my university.
  23. By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomas Avila Laurel
    I found a book set in Equatorial Guinea! In my mission to read my way around Africa, this was a big win. And it’s an excellent book, narrated in a beautiful, almost-dreamlike style.
  24. History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
    Another Booker longlisted book although, having read it, I’m not sure why. Focused on a teenage girl and her peripheral involvement in the lives of those around her, it’s a weirdly detached narrative.
  25. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
    I’m glad I finally read this; obviously some of the content is upsetting, but Angelou’s autobiographical look at her childhood in Arkansas is essential reading.
  26. The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound edited by Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law
    Really good collection of speculative fiction based around the idea of caring for others. Although the theme did become a little repetitive, the stories are all so different and original that this is a very enjoyable read.
  27. American War by Omar El Akkad
    I am going to be haunted by this brilliant but terrifying book about a future USA torn apart by civil war and environmental disaster. It has blown my mind and now I need a hug. More coherent review to follow.