There is nothing like a lot of hurry-up-and-wait that characterizes modern-day traveling to catch up on some reading. I went on vacation for a few weeks, spending fourteen days prowling the streets of Denmark, Germany, and Austria and happily taking the opportunity to play tourist and eat as much currywurst as I could possibly stand.
It was probably just as well that I headed home when I did; I think I was in very close danger to falling irredeemably head-over-heels for Germany and never wanting to leave, despite not understanding a lick of the language.
On my way to the schlosses and the burgs, the biergartens and markts, I knocked a few books off my reading list. Well, that’s stretching the truth a little– I ended up bringing books I’d broken my book-buying moratorium for, but to be fair, they’d been on my to-read list for ages.
The Bees by Laline Paull
Imagine the traditional dystopian novel, about hierarchical societies, memory, free will, creepy and all-powerful religious authorty, and uh, clones, I guess. Now imagine that everyone is bees. That’s pretty much the entire premise of Paull’s novel. And believe me, that makes all the difference between me being UTTERLY bored and UTTERLY fascinated. Because Paull’s story about a fictional beehive and the rise of a worker bee Flora is both familiar and mind-bogglingly alien. It’s the difference between reading an article about the possibility of extraterrestial life and watching E.T. And while there have always been anthropomorphized books about animals, I’d never read one quite like this. It’s not exactly charming, like A Bug’s Life or Nemo, nor cynical and satiric like Animal Farm. Rather, The Bees is an eerie, almost dreamy immersion into a meticulously articulated bee’s life and culture, carefully expressed and translated through traditional science fiction, so that the reader recognizes narrative cues, but is constantly aware that, whether as consciously as presented in the book or not, comparable events do happen in the lifespan of a bee hive. Now I’m afraid I harbor a secret desire to become a beekeeper so that I may spy on those tiny fliers and learn more about their secret lives.
I zipped through the book, which was imminently readable and finished it far more quickly than I wished. The book wraps up well, and I love that I finished the book wondering about collective memory, a hive’s life cycle, and if the book’s story was a tale of a single beehive, or of all of them. Delicious.
My second book I brought along was Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton, which I’d had my eye on for awhile. I love food literature and chef and restaurant memoirs, so when I saw it on sale at McNally Jacksons, I lunged for it, making for a particularly ugly moment in my life where I nearly booted a total stranger away and down the stairs in my haste. It’s an enjoyable read, which I wrapped up on the Eurorail. If you’ve read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, there’s no especial surprises when you read about Hamilton’s early experiences working in the food industry– it does read more individually than as a tribute to restaurant life. What really stood out for me were the writings about food and family– the first section about Hamilton’s own eclectic childhood with an artist father and French ex-ballerina mother, and the final about her in-laws were by far the most satisfying parts of the book, and I wish I’d understood how central Hamilton’s search for family and belonging was to the book before I began reading. I guess I’d been expecting a lot of recipes, with a lot of blood and bones and butter. It’s more of a story about how food can frame relationships and entire periods of someone’s life. Aside from a few stylistic quirks that had my inner editor itching for a red pen, I enjoyed it. Like any memoir of the complicated and messy human experience, there were some looses ends and plenty of bittersweet tangs, though that isn’t a bad thing. I think it made her writing and experiences easier to relate with. I hear the book’s been optioned for a movie, and I hope that they do a decent job with it.
The third and final book I had with me was The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, which I had an ebook of. As the first book in a series, it carries a lot of pressure to pitch a world and end-goal to its audience, without overexplaining, I guess. But I had to keep checking (on my spotty internet access…) whether or not I’d gotten the first book, and not the second, or third. The main character, Blue, is a good gateway character to follow as events unfold. The problem was that Stiefvater also wrote from the perspective of a few others, including the other main character, Gansey, which was where I became confused. To be fair, I don’t read as thoroughly on digital formats as I do with paperbacks– I tend to skim a little more quickly when it comes to ebooks, so the confusion is probably 70% my own fault. I just felt that while Blue was a very natural point-of-view to follow the evolution of the story, Gansey required you to be paying attention and reading in between lines and making educated guesses.
The book essentially introduces Blue, a non-psychic born into a family of psychics (an awesome quartet or quintet of lady characters, who deserve their own book or show on the Lifetime network), who is destined to kill her true love (or some combination of kissing, killing, death, love, etc. etc., I probably should have paid better attention, since it seems to be a defining characteristic) and has so far dealt with this dire prophesy by cheerfully going about her life without letting romance bother her too much. This resolution becomes challenged when she runs into a group of boys from a local private school called Aglionby, led by the charismatic Gansey, who is obsessed with some obscure bit of Celtic mythology and ley lines, and has been on a quest to find a magically preserved Welsh king, which, for highly dubious reasons, somehow wound up in rural Virginia (??). There’s murders and mysteries and random displays of obscene wealth as well as the odd bit of truly weird shit, and I guess some romantic overtures and burgeoning love triangle (quartet? Quintet?) that won’t bear fruit for another few books, which is the least interesting part of narrative anyways, so no loss there.
More interesting (and more relevant, probably) is the discussions about social inequality and wealth disparities. Which is kind of a weird thing to bring up about when talking about YA urban fantasy/paranormal romance, but as other reviewers have noted, it’s easily one of the book’s more notable qualities. Adam, the scholarship kid, is arguably more compelling a protagonist than Gansey because his own struggle, his personal quest, his motivations to succeed rise above his abusive and poor family life without relying on anyone but himself, are significantly more grounded than Gansey’s mystical near-death experience that somehow leads him on his bizarre and geographically-misplaced search for blah blah king. While Gansey only became more real to me after his own mental grappling with rich-boy guilt and privilege are shown, with real world consequences. Yeah, I know that the WHOLE POINT of this series is about Gansey’s mystical search and its consequences, but I could not care less– give me a solid brick about the shenanigans of Blue’s family of eccentric psychics and Adam’s search for independence while Gansey dives into educating himself about rich, white, male privilege, and I’ll be satisfied. I’m aware I may not have the most popular opinion here, but, eh.
As for the other two private school boys, one is the traditional bad boy (Ronan– think dead-“sexy”-but-completely-uncharming Sirius Black, brother issues and all) and Noah (the creepy shut in, who is actually far creepier than you’d even expect, and who, by the way, ended up being my favorite of the boys). I’m less convinced of the former’s attractiveness as a character, since there’s not much complexity to Ronan yet beyond implied tragic past and hints of weird magic bollocks, and I’ve long left behind the one-dimensional Byronic anti-hero phase of my life (alright, more like only a year ago, but after Tim Riggins in Friday Night Lights, there honestly will never be room for another bad-boy-w-heart-of-gold in my life). But I hear character development picks up a little more in the next few books, which is promising.
The first book was not as satisfying as it could have (should have?) been. I suppose I’m more traditional– I like books in a series that have definite beginnings and ends. Books should be able to stand on their own, so that you could pick up any book in a series and have a completely satisfactory narrative sequence, even if the details may escape you. The Raven Boys has a weak conclusion (imho), but mostly because the first book is setting everything up for the following three other books, at the detriment of some of the narrative elements of this first part. I feel like if Blue’s perspective, and her own family mystery and dealings with her shady aunt Neeve were the focus, instead of attention being split between her and the Aglionby boys, it would be a more coherent and satisfying reading experience. But I guess massive loose threads and etc. sells books– it worked on me. I headed to my local bookshop first chance upon return to scour the shelves for the sequel (I was unsuccessful! which may explain my disgruntled review, ha).
I just realized as I added tags to this post that all three books were from women writers. That just reminded me of the recent cry for publishing more women authors, and this small press’s challenge acceptance of publishing only women for a year.
(apologies for incomprehensible sentences, I’m falling asleep writing this.)