The Bees by Laline Paull

The BeesI began Laline Paull’s The Bees with good feelings towards bees. I mean, I wasn’t ready to be snuggle buddies with a hive, but I adore honey so I was willing to spread the love to the honey-makers. Now? Well, I’ve probably developed apiphobia.

Let’s start at the literal beginning – Flora 717 being born, grotesquely large and deformed, into the lowest caste in the hive, the sanitation bees. Sanitation is responsible for removing the dead and other waste and its members are considered to be dumb in both senses of the term. All bees are expected above all to be dutiful and obedient to their hive, including by following the cardinal rule that no one but the queen bee may breed.

Because of Flora’s biological differences and innate curiosity, a Sage priestess decides to use her for a series of experiments, elevating Flora first to the nursery where she demonstrates the rare ability to feed the offspring and then to forager status, allowing her to fly free and gather food for the family. However, her actions soon stray into sedition as she inadvertently challenges the status quo by proving to be more fertile than the queen. Her growing maternal instincts battle with her socialized desire to serve her society, as she struggles to discover how to protect both her child and her hive from the evil within and without.

Flora is the worst, and therefore I frequently amused my roommate with vehement exclamations wishing for her imminent demise. She possesses the simultaneous and awkward mix of too much intelligence and too little, questioning everything and not exactly knowing when to shut up, though thankfully her judgement improves over the course of the book.  Sadly, without her, there would be no plot because she was the one exploring the hive and overthrowing the rigidly hierarchical system – what can I say, guess I’m not a rebel. Her short-sighted ignorance frustrated rather than incited sympathy from me, especially as her ill-conceived actions kept endangering her fellow bees, including that of her own caste whom she behaved snobbishly toward. She was generally one selfish little bee-otch.

Most of the supporting cast were only vaguely sketched out, so it was difficult to know them as individuals rather than the collective. My favorite characters appeared on page only briefly, including a sweet fly that sacrificed himself for Flora, the devious fortune-telling spiders, and the elderly gentleman who “owns” the hive and serves as a rare human intrusion into hive world. The drones were (debatably) the highlight, adding a welcomed humorous element with their narcissistic affectations and dialogue dripping with sexual innuendo – at least until their macabre death sequence. (May they rest in…pieces…)

I’m still unsure what was truth and what was fiction about bees, which could be considered the mark of a good writer, but in actuality annoyed me. For example, how badly are the bees affected by the removal of honey? Does bee mating work as she posited? (A question I never thought I’d ask.) In general, while Paull’s plot was wildly innovative, her world-building was imbalanced. Pivotal points went unexplained, from the Sages’ schemes and religious authority to the queen’s communication and memory retention capabilities and, most irritatingly, Flora’s pregnancy. The writing overall tended towards the poetic, favoring style over substance.

This book is billed as The Handmaid’s Tale meets The Hunger Games, but perhaps more accurately can be considered the end result of Quentin Tarentino and George Orwell teaming up to revamp Charlotte’s Web.  As I mentioned initially, I’m currently still traumatized from the experience of reading this. I’ll certainly never forget this book as it is one of the scariest tales I’ve read, perhaps ever. I’m torn on the rating because it was memorable and creative, but I didn’t particularly enjoy the experience of reading it.

2.5 Stars

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The Perfectionists by Sara Shepard

The Perfectionists (The Perfectionists, #1)As I mentioned in my review of Sara Shepard’s The HeiressesI’m a little bit of a Pretty Little Liars (PLL) addict, having read the beginning few books of the series plus being hopelessly obsessed with the show, to the point that the identity of the notorious “A” is now a running joke with my roommate. Therefore, when I heard about The Perfectionists, a high school drama that hearkened back to my own straight-A overachieving days (which sadly(?) lacked both debauchery and mystery), I had to read it.

Nolan Hotchkiss is king of Beacon High, a public high school outside Seattle where everyone strives for perfection (hence the title). Gifted musician Mackenzie, brainy and beautiful Ava, soccer star Caitlin, and popular best friends Julie and Parker have little in common – except their mutual fear and loathing of Nolan. So when they’re thrown together for a film class project, they jokingly plot Nolan’s murder, only to have him drop dead at his own party in the exact same way. They’re the perfect suspects, only they didn’t do it and now they have to prove it before their perfect reputations are ruined.

Um, how did I not get a (1) film class in high school where (2) we watched Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, based on one of my favorite books, and (3) I discussed how to get away with murder with my besties? So jealous of these girls already without even getting to the fancy clothes and lavish parties. But I probably shouldn’t be because each of their lives sucks in some way – and it gets dark, y’all. Like child abuse, sexual predators, suicide, and drug addiction dark. Kudos to Shepard though for turning it from PSA to a serious and empathetic portrayal of real teen issues. As a result, The Perfectionists is slightly deeper than PLL, in spite of the usual boy problems.

Speaking of, the men were really lacking in this one, being mostly terrible and/or creepy. Like in her other works, Shepard focuses on female friendships and empowerment over male-female relationships of any variety. That being said, perhaps in order to avoid the inevitable PLL comparisons, I think she has one too many heroines. The narration constantly switches between all 5 of them, making certain chapters more intriguing and all chapters more confusing.

Out of the protagonists, I admired both Julie and Parker, who defied the mean girl stereotype, leaning strongly on each other through some very intense times. I also sympathized with Ava, who struggled to get people to take her seriously and look beyond her looks. However, I found myself mixing up Caitlin and Mackenzie, neither of whom really appealed to me. At least Caitlin had a very valid reason for hating Nolan and partaking in the plot – Mackenzie served far less purpose and additionally her drama was uninteresting.

That being said, Mackenzie thankfully had the most definitive ending in a conclusion that was rushed over a cliff. Nothing was tied up in the other 4 girls’ threads or in the main story-line, which I found to be frustrating as I was left with more questions than answers. The book overall seemed to be mostly set-up for the next one, begging the question as to why Shepard can’t just write one comprehensive book instead of a short, unresolved book in a long series of unresolved books.

I’ll probably read the sequel, mostly to find out if my hunch is correct as to who the murderer is. I’m so glad that it looks like it’ll only be a two-book series rather than as never-ending as PLL – definitely couldn’t stand the added frustration. But while I was entertained, out of all of Shepard’s books that I’ve read, I think I’d recommend the first 4-8 PLL books over this one.

3 Stars

Rooms by Lauren Oliver

RoomsI loved Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall and was excited to hear that she was publishing an adult novel – Rooms. And, bonus, it had mystery and history and a haunted house! What more could I ask for?!

Richard Walker has died, thankfully not at home – much to the relief of introverted Alice and sarcastic Sandra, ghosts currently haunting their (and now his) former house. A wealthy but philandering hoarder of a man, Richard left behind an embittered drunk of an ex-wife Caroline, nymphomaniac daughter Minna and her own young daughter Amy, and angsty teenage son Trenton, who all arrive to sort through his belongings. None of the them have been in the house in years, having left and never planned on looking back, and Alice and Sandra observe the changes the years have wrought in them while betting on how long they’ll last confronting their memories of the past.

But Alice and Sandra have their own memories they’ve been hiding from. Now stuck in the house for years, increasingly losing their identity, it’s uncertain whether they’ll ever rest in peace. Until a third ghost arrives, a young girl who Trenton can somehow communicate with – and whose presence helps unravel the mysteries of the past and force both the family and the resident spirits alike to face the truth.

This was an easy, but not particularly exciting read. All of the characters were lousy humans, lying both to themselves and to others almost compulsively. Granted, several of them had very good reasons to bury the truth but naturally (and literally in one case) it’s eventually dug up. The getting there is darkly humorous, similar to the film American Beauty in many dysfunctional ways. I don’t know how to describe it exactly but all of the characters are sympathetic, yet not very compelling. Take Trenton, who’s depressed because he’s unpopular – understandable for a teen, but not particularly interesting. Or Caroline, who drowns her regrets at leaving her cheating husband in alcohol and stalks his former mistresses. Maybe they just felt like stereotypes? But whatever it was, I couldn’t feel invested in them.

Unfortunately, all of them get POV chapters – switching between characters that frequently is risky because certain perspectives are bound to be better. I think my favorite here was Sandra, who was dead-on accurate despite her bitchiness, which at least enlivened the narrative in a way that Trenton’s moaning and Minna’s boning couldn’t. In spite of my interest though, I still lost track of even her back-story because of all the switching. Additionally, several chapters are encompassed within each section, which is named after a room in the house, a cute tie-in to where the story was at that time but one that ultimately added to my confusion about certain plot points.

Overall, it just wasn’t what I expected it to be, and not in a good way. The idea of it far trumped the execution. I hesitate to bill this as fantasy or horror because the supernatural ghost element isn’t so much paranormal or spooky as it seems to be a depressing extension of the human experience. The book is more geared towards the family drama-loving audience than any readers of the aforementioned genres. As for me, I am still eager to read her newest YA work Panic, but this one just didn’t cut it.

3 Stars

Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus

The Night CircusThe Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is one of those books that got rave reviews among my friend group, that I saw on every airport kiosk and bookstore window across the country, that I always meant to read but never quite got around to. I think it’s length of nearly 400 pages seemed daunting but, much like in the book itself, the hurdle was rather illusory because once I began, I couldn’t put it down until the end.

“Le Cirque des Reves,” the circus of dreams – a mysterious name for a mysterious place that pops up around the world without notice. Open only at night, it’s black-and-white striped tents contain acts beyond your wildest imaginings and it soon gains a cult-like following of fans and believers, who don’t know what the circus truly hides.

For it serves as an elaborate staging ground for a magical competition between two masters of two different schools of thought. Throughout the years, they have pitted their proteges against each other in increasingly difficult feats of magic. In this iteration, naturally-talented Celia faces self-taught Marco – only one can remain standing, and the competition only becomes more complicated as they fall in love as the stakes not only include their lives, but the fates of the circus performers and patrons.

The circus is the highlight and centerpiece of the story. From the way it’s conceived via dinner party conversation to how it magically grows to encompass all sorts of curiosities, Morgenstern’s (admittedly flowery) descriptions artfully depict its essence. I wanted to devour the caramel apples while wandering in circles from tent to tent, jumping off the cloud maze or gazing awestruck at the acrobatics, and come back to the circus every night, much like the red-clothed rêveurs.

To be honest, how much you enjoy the story depends largely on if you buy into those rêveurs’ viewpoint, which provide the reader with an outsider’s awe at the circus. Although the book jumped frequently between diverse POVs (including lead rêveur Thessien’s and new circus-goer Bailey’s) as well as different years, I thought this tactic helped weave together the varying threads of the tale. Additionally, this allowed us a glimpse into the minds of the fascinating side characters, who added color to this seemingly black-and-white world. The young twins Poppet and Widget were fun and intriguing, symbols of hope as they were birthed with the circus’ inception and juxtaposed with the older, more tragic Burgess twins. From the flashy eccentric Chandresh to the enigmatic Tsukiko, all the secondary players seemed to be fleshed out individuals who were central to the plot.

As for the protagonists, I was ambivalent towards Marco, largely because of his treatment of his initial love interest, the fortune-teller Isobel. However, I liked Celia, finding her to be impressively mature and kind-hearted despite her upbringing. Together, I found their romance to be bittersweet since they were both clearly looking for love and acceptance, having not received it from their fathers/masters. I ended up explaining away some of the hurriedness of their relationship as a unfortunate side effect of their binding contract to their masters and to the game, and that way it became more touching to see how they transitioned their magic from rivalry to flirtation. The only part I didn’t love was the resolution of their competition. It seemed to end abruptly and with an ill-explained deus ex machina in the form of a seemingly-tangential character.

Still, I thought it was an enjoyable and engaging read, an exemplary entwining of my two favorite genres of fiction – fantasy and quasi-Victorian era historical fiction. So for what it’s worth, with a half star subtracted for the confusing conclusion,

4.5 Stars

Take Me Tomorrow by Shannon A. Thompson

Take Me TomorrowNote: I received a free copy of the e-book from the author, Shannon A. Thompson, who contacted me to request a review – my thanks to her! Regardless, my opinion was not influenced by this exchange and what follows is an honest critique of the book. 

It’s been awhile since I’ve read a good dystopia, or really any dystopia, despite the over-saturation of them in recent YA fiction. So when Shannon reached out to me, I jumped at the chance to switch genres from the heftier classics (see my reviews for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Dracula) to a compulsively readable sci-fi story.

In Take Me Tomorrow, only several towns remain populated with the United States as we know it having collapsed. Sophia Gray lives in the capital city, known as Topeka, one of the more stable parts of the country. With the proliferation of the clairvoyant drug tomo sparking rebellions, the government remains authoritarian and the people uneasy in the wake of the state’s massacre of the rebels two years prior.

Under her single father’s influence, Sophia has learned to skirt the restrictions and rules where she can – until her father’s illegal forgeries and her friends’ increasing recklessness leads to trouble in the form of Noah, a handsome stranger who sneaked across the border armed with tomo and intent on causing problems for the government. His presence and mysterious past connection to her loved ones causes Sophia to question her life and society she lives in.

(Mild spoilers ahead)

The primary reason I was drawn in by this description is that it’s a very innovative premise, like nothing I’ve read before. Usually in future dystopias, the major cities still exist in some form, whereas here the center of the new State is Topeka, Kansas – about as middle-of-nowhere as you can get (if that’s where it actually is since the geography is intentionally a bit sketchy). Various references to the Brooklyn Bridge pepper the novel, but it’s clear that Manhattan is destroyed and the rest of New York, particularly Albany, is also falling quickly into disarray. But honestly, how sad would it be for Topeka to be the future remnant of America?

Another creative element is the drug angle in the plot, highlighted by the Rx in “tomorrow” on the cover. Tomo is a hallucinogenic that may (or may not) give the user visions of the future. With tomo, the novel develops an added layer that links it to actual American history via our past and present war on drugs. Unlike cocaine and more similar to medical marijuana, tomo is considered to be a symbol of hope among a certain contingent. Yet, numerous characters express skepticism about it given the obvious and numerous negative side effects. Although I still don’t quite understand how tomo works, the author deftly presents both sides of the argument through the characters without imposing her personal viewpoint about drugs onto the narrative.

As for the characters themselves, I adored the protagonist Sophia most because she does what YA heroines almost never do – questioning the crazy in their lives and taking decisive action. She starts off pretty naive, but upon realizing her lack of information and the web of lies surrounding her, immediately starts interrogating her friends and family to try to make sense of the world again. And that’s totally understandable because I would do the same in her shoes, whereas certain female characters (no naming names here) just docilely follow whatever their hero says. Also laudable is the author’s lack of emphasis on Sophia’s appearance – I loved that I wasn’t treated to repeated references to her flowing locks or striking eyes, though she does have a (thankfully brief) obligatory beautiful gown/romantic dance interlude with her leading man.

Speaking of, I didn’t feel the same adoration towards Noah, most likely because he was a majorly unstable drug addict. Despite his infrequent attempts to do the right thing, he was largely self-serving and reckless with the safety of his supposed allies, which his friends even call him out on. Maybe some readers find this type of hero enthralling, but overall I felt like he was a negative influence on everyone’s life and that Sophia deserved better (personally, I was rooting for her slightly nerdy friend Miles or even broody Broden over Noah).

My distaste for the romance definitely dropped the book a half star as did the abrupt ending, which frustratingly leaves a few threads unresolved. I want all the answers, but I haven’t heard or read anything about a possible sequel. I’m invested enough in Sophia and curious enough about tomo that I’d definitely read it. In the meantime, fans of YA dystopias should give this a read as they await the next film installment of The Hunger Games.

3.5 Stars

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

DraculaHalloween is hands-down my favorite holiday. I’m still in mourning for the fact that I have to wait a whole year for it to occur again, so I decided it was about time I read the granddaddy of the vampire trend, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And not going to lie – without even opening the book, I thought about draping garlic wreaths around the house. This cover is too freaky! It perfectly captures the creeping terror of the text.

To begin, solicitor Jonathan Harker voyages deep into the forests of Transylvania to meet with his firm’s client, one Count Dracula. Despite spooky and mysterious incidents along the way, Jonathan isn’t daunted and continues to the castle to assist the Count with the purchase of a London house. Soon though, he realizes he’s trapped there with no hope of escaping alive as Dracula’s undead brides vie for his blood.

Meanwhile, in England, three men via for the heart of Lucy Westenra, whose childhood sleepwalking begins anew inspite of the watchful eye of her best friend Mina, who frets about her fiance Jonathan’s absence. By the time Jonathan, deranged from his experiences, reunites with Mina, a series of troubling instances brew – a ship manned by corpses arrives at Whitby, puncture marks are found on the necks of women and youths, wolves escape from the zoo, and a mental patient raves about his Master’s imminent arrival as he murders and eats animals. Psychologist John Seward calls in his mentor Abraham van Helsing to cure Lucy’s affliction and find out the truth about Dracula.

I loved this book! Told in alternating perspectives by the diaries of Jonathan, Mina, and Seward primarily, Stoker conjures an atmosphere of fear by way of lack of information. Slowly the reader can put all the pieces together with the interspersed newspaper articles and letters, but our protagonists’ struggle to understand their circumstances (e.x. the wolves or the empty vessel or Lucy’s bloodlust) enhances the terror. It’s a technique not all authors pull off well since it’s difficult to make each voice distinct, but Stoker’s dexterity showed why Dracula is a classic.

Moreover, all of the characters are appealing, including the renowned Professor van Helsing, who here is intelligent and passionate but still occasionally outwitted by his ancient rival. Too many amazing of these amazing characters are cut or condensed from film adaptations, among them my favorite adorably chivalrous Texan Quincey P. Morris and the mysterious asylum inmate Renfield. But don’t even get me started on the character assassination in film of Lucy and Mina! They were both such respectable women in the novel, with such a deep, strong friendship that I wanted to be friends with them. However, in the movies, one or both of them is/are turned into a whore. They do spend a lot of time talking about their men and Lucy does have numerous suitors, so I’m unsure if it would pass the Bechdel test, but they are also impressively intelligent and determined even in the face of evil.

Stoker almost helped me overcome my vampire-fatigue…and then I heard Anne Rice was releasing a new book. (Shaking fist) Darn you, Anne Rice, for making vampires the new hot thing! Not that I’ve read it, but I whole-heartedly recommended going back to the original vampire and reading Dracula if you haven’t already or re-reading it if you have.

5 Stars

The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro

 

The Perfume CollectorThe Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro was the November pick for my Book Club, a relatively good decision that all members, regardless of age, gender, or background, found at least somewhat enjoyable. It was a good middle-ground mix of substantive and entertaining, especially since we all found The Beekeeper’s Ball too fluffy and All Our Names and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena too heavy.

The book opens with a dying Eva d’Orsey in 1955, going through the motions of life while knowingly approaching death from alcoholism. Meanwhile, in London, socialite and trophy wife Grace Monroe is discontented about her life. She hates playing the role her ambitious husband wants her to play, but she also can’t find any independent outlet to express herself. This changes with a letter from Paris, stating that she is the sole heir of the newly deceased Eva d’Orsey and must come to France to receive her inheritance. Shocked by her mysterious benefactor’s generosity, Grace travels to Paris to uncover who Eva is and why Eva would leave Grace her money.

Tessaro alternates chapters from Grace’s perspective as she revels in her newfound freedom and investigates with chapters from Eva’s perspective, beginning in 1920s New York where she works at a hotel up to her eventual fate in Paris. As Grace grows into her own, so to is Eva developing and discovering who she is. This technique is deftly done as it helps the reader unravel the truth ahead of Grace, but with enough mystery to keep both storylines intriguing even if the ending is guessable early on.

Unlike most of my fellow book club members, I strongly preferred Grace’s journey to Eva’s. Granted Eva was quite young (14) when the story begins, but she was incredibly naive and kept being so despite the horrible things that happened to her. I desperately wanted to shake some sense into her with every poor decision she made. Grace, meanwhile, was sheltered and innocent, yet I admired her determination in the face of societal expectation and her doggedness to discover the truth instead of just taking the money and running.

The eccentric supporting cast was hit or miss for me. Grace’s best friend Mallory and lawyer Thissot were delightfully supportive, especially at a time where women’s lib wasn’t really a thing yet. But part of the reason I disliked Eva’s narrative was the despicable cast peppering it, from the prostitute Kat Waverly to the crazy Madame Zed to the gambler Lord Lambert. I empathized more with renowned perfumer Valmont, but he was oddly awkward and a little creepy, not because of his sexual tendencies but because of his obsession with bodily odor.

The title is a bit of a stretch, because I didn’t think that perfume collecting played as big of a role in the narrative as it could’ve. It’s mostly just a vehicle for Grace to uncover the past with its usage being far-fetched in certain plot-pivotal instances. However, learning about the intricacies of perfume development and the discussions of smell memory was interesting. It recalled a fascinating piece I saw, possibly on the Travel Channel, about the development of “the nose” amongst expert perfumers so that they can distinguish individual scents from a cacophony of smells.

In the end, this was a fine, mildly engaging read. It was fairly light and easy, with enough suspense to keep me invested. If you enjoy historical fiction, particularly mid-1900s New York or Europe, this would be a good choice.

3 Stars