6 Degrees of Separation: Less Than Zero to See What I Have Done

less than zero.jpgI have been a monumentally lazy blogger in recent months, since going back to work for the new school year and setting myself the ludicrous goal of reading 365 books in 2017. It’s time to have a word with myself, starting with linking up with 6 Degrees again; hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest, it’s a monthly challenge to link 7 books in a chain, starting with a particular title. This month, it’s Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero, which I read, along with Ellis’ other novels, a few years ago.

From Less Than Zero, I’m going to link to (probably) Ellis’ most notorious work, American Psycho, a book which freaked me out more than I’m really willing to talk about without a trained counsellor on standby. Even if I think of Patrick Bateman as Christian Bale, it’s still something I prefer not to return to.

This is compounded by the fact that I very stupidly read American Psycho on holiday, which brings me to my second link, based on other highly inappropriate beach reading. On the same trip, I read Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown, which was one of the most colossally boring books I have ever forced myself through, made all the worse by the fact that my husband was reading Danny Wallace’s Yes Man on the sunlounger next to me and having a great time.

Shalimar the Clown, as I recall, contained about a billion pages of conflict between India and Pakistan, which I’m sure is extremely fascinating and important; it’s just not really appropriate for a poolside in Mexico. Recently, I read Dorit Rabinyat’s All the Rivers, which links to Rushdie’s work in its use of a complex conflict; All the Rivers is about an Israeli woman and Palestinian man who meet in New York and fall in love. It has been banned in Israel for this depiction of a taboo relationship.

The banning of books brings me to my next link, as I have discovered that another recent read, Beloved by Toni Morrison, has also been prohibited, this time in the USA. I read this at university but revisited it last month and was mesmerised all over again; Morrison is really a phenomenal writer (I finished Song of Solomon last night, which was equally excellent).

From Beloved, let’s go for something else that’s creepy and claustrophobic, as well as being another favourite of mine: Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Like Morrison, Jackson is an author whose complete works I’m making my way through. I love this book’s depiction of Merricat and the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of most of her relatives.

For my final link, I’m opting for Sarah Schmidt, following a domestic murder theme, and See What I Have Done, which is a fictionalised account of the Borden murders. As with a few of the other books I’ve chosen here, it’s creepy.

Next month’s starter book is It by Stephen King, which I will absolutely and completely not be reading, so expect a link with no relevance to the actual book at all. There’s a clown in it, right?


Review & Ramble: Crush edited by Cathy Alter and Dave Singleton

Crush brings together the nostalgic, cringe-inducing experiences of a selection of writers discussing their formative celebrity crushes. It’s a cute concept, but also one which allows for real emotions: some contributors experience sexual awakenings while watching Star Wars, while others are woken up to gender roles thanks to Little House on the Prairie. Some accounts are very short (Stephen King’s takes up under a page) while other imaginary love affairs require a page count closer to a novella (clearly Brian Austin Green is a tough guy to get over – this one was one of my favourites, actually; it’s extremely funny). 

Celebrity crushes are surely one of the great unifying themes of human experience, aren’t they? Reading this book inspired me to recall some of my own, which range from the reasonably normal (Robbie Williams up to and including Everything Changes) to the obsessive (former Ipswich Town captain Matt Holland, who I once met and found myself so overcome I genuinely nearly cried), to the faintly embarrassing (look, fancying Zach Morris was way too obvious so lusting after AC Slater was fine at the time). At the age of 14, I had a sweet imaginary romance with Taylor Hanson and aggressively fought anyone who said he looked like a girl. In the mid-90s, I was obsessed with the largely fogotten TV show Seaquest DSV and its young star, Jonathan Brandis, about whom I once had a very nice, chaste dream in which he was my boyfriend and I was a marine biologist (incidentally, I Googled Brandis yesterday and discovered that he died in 2003, so clearly my commitment wasn’t that intense). Even now, as a mature 34 year old, I will pretty much only watch films that star a hot man called Chris. I love a good celebrity crush. I don’t care if it makes me seem shallow or overly concerned with appearance or fooled by the trappings of fame: in real life, I am none of these things, so sometimes it is rather pleasant to let my mind wander towards a well-sculpted pair of cheekbones.

Crush gave me a pleasing opportunity to dwell on these serious matters (and Taylor Hanson), as well as raising many rueful smiles in reaction to the writers’ mortifying experiences. It was one of those books I read and think, “I want to write something like that” (sorry, you just read it) and possibly force my students to write. Unless that’s just too weird. And also I don’t know how many times I could read about Justin Bieber without losing the will. Be warned: my new conversation starter (obviously after “what are you reading?”) will be “who was your first celebrity crush?” I have a strong urge to discuss this in the comments…

YA Review: Satellite by Nick Lake

The Premise: Leo, Libra and Orion are counting down to the day they can go home. Of course, having been born and raised on a spaceship, they haven’t ever actually been ‘home’ to Earth, so it’s a complicated situation made more so by government secrets, unexpected twists and messy family relationships.

Why you should read it: Satellite is an excellent YA sci-fi, with emphasis on the ‘sci’ part. The beginning, with the action set on board the spaceship, is hugely detailed without ever becoming too much. I’m no scientist and I can’t pretend to have understood all the science exposition, but I was never less than intrigued by it. The story develops superbly too; I was worried that I’d lose interest once the action moved Earthwards, but Lake’s plot is twisty and turny enough to keep any reader enthralled. I lap up space-set novels anyway, but I was no less interested when the setting became more familiar. 

There are lots of absorbing elements to the plot, my favourite of which was the complex family dynamic between Leo and his astronaut mother and retired astronaut grandfather. There’s so much bubbling beneath the surface in these relationships that I was very much intrigued. 

And, once again, space. SPACE! 

Be warned: the narrative, from Leo’s PoV, is written in a sort-of text-speak, without certain punctuation marks and with abbreviations like “c” for “see”. To begin with, I will admit to having found it quite irritating (I’m an English teacher, okay? It’s in my nature to want to add capital letters), but stumbling across a blog in which Lake explained his decision along with his predictions for the future of punctuation helped me to accept it as a necessary part of the narrative. So don’t be put off by the style: if I can deal with it, I reckon you can too.

Read this if you liked: The Loneliest Girl in the Universe by Lauren James, Illuminae by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman

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.