Category Archives: british literature

Review: The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell

24th January 2013

Via Goodreads

Via Goodreads

*This book was sent to me by the publisher Harper in exchange for an honest review.

Today is Christmas Eve.

Today is my birthday.

Today I am fifteen.

Today I buried my parents in the backyard.

Neither of them were beloved.

Thus starts The Death of Bees, a book I started reading with a very perplexed, very one-eyebrow-raised expression on my face. Marnie is fifteen. Her younger sister Nelly is twelve and a bit…off. Their parents are dead, and within the first ten pages, there are graphic depictions of the burial described above. And when I say graphic, I mean it was lucky I was doing some bathtub reading, as I very nearly gagged when the sisters move their father, his fingernail comes off, and Nelly calls him a “beastly, beastly man.” But something compelled me to push down the bile and keep reading.

That something would be Nelly and Marnie. Marnie is hardened to the ugliness around her – parents who are rarely around and leave the girls to fend for themselves. Nelly, on the other hand, is tough but seems so fragile, bound up in a different sort of world, seeing her reality but trying to  change it at the same time. When Lennie, their elderly neighbor, reaches out to them, I was relieved but nervous, as Lennie has baggage of his own. This trio is an odd one to narrate a story. However, in the projects of Glasgow, this group is no worse than their neighbors, and as the three tell their story, you realize they are very much the cream of the crop, building a makeshift family without requiring all that much from one another.

Marnie wants to be young and carefree, but she also loves her sister and wants to protect her. Nelly is exasperated by Marnie and those around her who don’t understand who she is. Lennie is gay and once propositioned a young man, not realizing his age, but he, too, has lost someone – the difference is, his loss was of a beloved one. What holds them together is the simple fact that no one cares about them. Lennie is actively reviled in a community of prostitutes and drug dealers. Nelly and Marnie have been in foster care before and have no desire to go back, and no one is exactly banging down the door to check on them.

As each sees the wounds in the other, the process of healing begins, and they band together in an unexpected but fierce love, until the world around them attempts to point out the wrongness of their situation. A book of juxtaposition and unexpected nobility, The Death of Bees will and should shock you, but it should also make you question who exactly should be reviled and how we can live in a world where children would rather bury their own parents in the dark of night than face the alternative.

Add this to your Goodreads shelf.

Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

13th August 2012

*I received this book from the publisher Random House in coordination with TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review.

From the back cover:

Meet Harold Fry…recently retired. He lives in a small English village with his wife, Maureen, who seems irritated by almost everything he does, even down to how he butters his toast. Little differentiates one day from the next. Then, one morning, the mail arrives and there is a letter addressed to Harold in a shaky scrawl from a woman he hasn’t seen or heard from in twenty years. Queenie Hennessy is in hospice and is writing to say goodbye. Thus begins the unlikely pilgrimage at the heart of Rachel Joyce’s remarkable debut. Harold Fry is determined to walk six hundred miles from Kingsbridge to the hospice in Berwick upon Tweed because, he believes, as long as he walks, Queenie Hennessy will live.

Ahh, Harold Fry. Perfectly British, the novel made the Man Booker longlist, quite a feat for a debut novelist. And though everyone I can possibly think of loved this novel…I did not.

The writing is good. Harold Fry, admirable. His painful past is lamentable and is introduced in well-paced revelations. However, even with all that, I did not quite like Harold Fry because I felt I did not really know him. Granted, this sounds odd as I just told you his past is revealed and his character honorable. But instead of feeling a kinship with Harold, I felt increasingly distanced from him as his observations bordered on kitschy needlepoint pillow fare:

He had learned it was the smallness of people that filled him with wonder and tenderness, and the loneliness of that too. The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other; and a life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had been doing so for a long time. Harold could no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique; and that this was the dilemma of being human.

Quite right, Harold, and there are easily two dozen pins on Pinterest which say virtually the same thing, as does Joyce here, in another passage:

It must be the same all over England. People were buying milk, or filling their cars with petrol, or even posting letters. And what no one else knew was the appalling weight of the thing they were carrying inside. The inhuman effort it took sometimes to be normal, and a part of things that appeared both easy and everyday.

Notice, I subconsciously introduced this quote by mentioning Joyce, and I think that is my biggest stumbling block: it didn’t feel as though Harold were making these observations but rather that Joyce was so inserted into the novel that I was being told how Joyce thought I should think Harold felt. If that makes sense.

In the first half of the book, these observations were touching, and there are several truly humbling moments when people open up to Harold and tell him about themselves in poignant ways; however, by the time the reader learns just what Harold has kept pent up within himself, these run-ins seem trite and forced, much like the group who, mainly for selfish reasons, decides to follow Harold in his pilgrimage. In other words, I wish Joyce had simply shown me these things instead of told me again and again.

However, this is quite possibly a case where I’m being much too cynical because, as I mentioned, many of those whose opinions I respect really enjoyed this book, as did most of the people on Goodreads [add it to your shelf if you like]. In fact, after finishing the book, I will say I had to really question myself: Am I unused to this kind of sacrifice and faith? Have I reached the point where sentiment seems manipulative? If so, what does that say about me?

I’m not sure I like the answers, and that, in and of itself, makes The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry an interesting read.

Check out others’ opinions on the book through TLC Book Tours.

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

13th June 2012

*I bought this book (and want every one of these with the new covers put out by Harper Collins).

From the back cover (because I’m still exhausted from New York):

Just after midnight, the famous Orient Express is stopped in its tracks by a snowdrift. By morning, the millionaire Samuel Edward Ratchett lies dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times, his door locked from the inside. One of his fellow passengers must be the murderer.

Isolated by the storm, detective Hercule Poirot must find the killer among a dozen of the dead man’s enemies, before the murderer decides to strike again.

Toward the end of the spring semester, my students and I read an ESL version of Death on the Nile. Keep in mind, we read this on the heels of two other detective novels: one, a sort of Sam Spade, down-and-out detective novel and Sherlock Holmes in Hound of the Baskervilles. My students did not take kindly to Monsieur Poirot. After the other detectives, they couldn’t understand why Poirot kept allowing people to get killed. “2 bodies!” “5 bodies!” they’d exclaim. “And he doesn’t give us any hints!”

As an avid mystery reader, this would also be my complaint about Poirot. So pompous, and he keeps things so close to his chest, proclaiming again and again that he knows the killer without letting on what exactly gave him the idea. Ah, Poirot, you madden me. Yet, I’m still a sucker for it. This mystery in particular was one I enjoyed just because the victim was so dastardly. When his past comes to light, and the suspects express their happiness for his untimely end, you can understand why. Each passenger has an express reason to want the victim dead, and the end result is one I was both surprised and pleased with, in terms of mystery telling. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever read a mystery quite like this one.

Also, in contrast with Ms. Marple, whose exploits are very often close to home, Poirot is the exotic traveler, unfamiliar with his surroundings, yet in his element all at once. I read a few other Poirot toward the end of last year and wasn’t sure if I’d continue with him or not, but Murder on the Orient Express has changed my mind. I’ll still be grumpy about my own limitations and inability to determined the killer, and I’m sure I’ll complain about Monsieur Poirot as well, but as Lawrence Block says on the back of this book, “Agatha Christie is something special.”

A Bitter Truth by Charles Todd

31st May 2012

*I won a copy of this book from Book Club Girl. Thanks!

Synopsis from the author’s website:

When battlefield nurse Bess Crawford returns from France for a well-earned Christmas leave, she finds a bruised and shivering woman huddled in the doorway of her London residence. The woman has nowhere to turn, and, propelled by a firm sense of duty, Bess takes her in. Once inside Bess’s flat the woman reveals that a quarrel with her husband erupted into violence, yet she wants to go home—if Bess will come with her to Sussex. Realizing that the woman is suffering from a concussion, Bess gives up a few precious days of leave to travel with her. But she soon discovers that this is a good deed with unforeseeable consequences.

What Bess finds at Vixen Hill is a house of mourning. The woman’s family has gathered for a memorial service for the elder son who has died of war wounds. Her husband, home on compassionate leave, is tense, tormented by jealousy and his own guilty conscience. Then, when a troubled house guest is found dead, Bess herself becomes a prime suspect in the case. This murder will lead her to a dangerous quest in war-torn France, an unexpected ally, and a startling revelation that puts her in jeopardy before a vicious killer can be exposed.

Ah, Bess. You’re so kind and generous. You see, people impose quite a lot on Bess, and because she’s a woman of duty, a duty instilled by her Army father, Bess does what she feels is right. She helps regardless of whether or not the individuals deserve to be helped, and I admire her for that because the family in this novel tested my patience. The family inhabits the house, but they aren’t the liveliest bunch. Yes, there is a war on, and yes, the family has lost one of their own, but they’re also harboring family secrets. A long-dead daughter’s portrait stares down at them, and Lydia (the woman Bess finds on her doorstep) cannot discuss children with her husband without the memory of her husband’s sister bearing down on them. It’s an oppressive atmosphere, and that oppression increases when one of the house party is found dead.

Bess comes under suspicion and will have to prove herself at every turn, and honestly, that’s what I loved about this book. Bess is at the front for much of it, nursing and passing messages between aid stations in her quest for the truth. The toll the war is taking is ever present and is mirrored in the family as well as Bess’s own frustration and fear.

Simon Brandon, her father’s right-hand man and family friend, is back, but another man is vying for Bess’s attention, and I really enjoyed seeing bits of a fun and free Bess, one who knows her duty but still manages to appreciate the playful spirit of others.

If you haven’t picked up this series yet, what are you waiting for? It’s got a strong female lead; it’s set during World War I. It’s part mystery and part historical fiction. Buy it for your Nook now, and you’ll be ready for the newest book An Unmarked Grave, set to hit bookshelves on June 25!

Psst! Check out the updated review of Wife 22 by Melanie Gideon to see if you were one of two winners!


A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd