Meandering Through Middle Grade: Life on a Bee-less Planet…

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meandering-through-middle-grade

It’s a question that’s been asked by everyone from your common-or-garden human to Doctor Who himself (tenth incarnation): Where are all the bees?  What is happening to our little black-and-gold buzzing pollination stations?  What will happen if the bees disappear for good?

All these questions and more are probed in the original and engaging mildly post-apocalyptic novel for middle grade readers, How to Bee by Bren MacDibble. I feel the need to point out before we go any further that the story contained within this book is far more down-to-earth and substantial than either its cover or title give it credit for.  We received our copy from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Allen & Unwin:

A story about family, loyalty, kindness and bravery, set against an all-too-possible future where climate change has forever changed the way we live.

Sometimes bees get too big to be up in the branches, sometimes they fall and break their bones. This week both happened and Foreman said, ‘Tomorrow we’ll find two new bees.’

Peony lives with her sister and grandfather on a fruit farm outside the city. In a world where real bees are extinct, the quickest, bravest kids climb the fruit trees and pollinate the flowers by hand. All Peony really wants is to be a bee. Life on the farm is a scrabble, but there is enough to eat and a place to sleep, and there is love. Then Peony’s mother arrives to take her away from everything she has ever known, and all Peony’s grit and quick thinking might not be enough to keep her safe.

How To Bee is a beautiful and fierce novel for younger readers, and the voice of Peony will stay with you long after you read the last page.

how to bee

Although this book is set in a post-bee world, the setting is far enough after the bee-pocalypse (or the time when the bees went extinct) that the world, or at least Peony’s part of it, has found a workable solution to the problem.  Children with poles now climb fruit trees to pollinate them and life in the cities depends entirely on the good work of the farms where fresh food is grown.  Peony dreams of being a bee and completing the important, prestigious work but her dream is ripped away when her mother returns from her city job and demands that Peony return with her to earn cash.  Peony is bewildered by this, because on the farm, they have everything they need – money is anathema when there’s no shops to buy things from.  In the city however, money is everything and the gap between haves and have-nots is illustrated by the hordes of raggy people who beg in the streets, with no jobs, homes or hope.

Along with an original slang, this story has unmistakable undertones of a Dickensian novel, with an urban environment characterised by the dichotomy of the rich and poor, in direct contrast to the happily barefoot children of the countryside.  Sure, life is hard on Peony’s farm, but at least the people there are a strong community and understand the importance of their work to the necessities of life.  The story moves through phases, with the early chapters introducing the reader to the farm and its processes, as well as Peony’s home life.  The central chapters of the story, set in a big house in the city, show a different side to this alternative future, and demonstrate the hostility of the “real” world, in which violence, struggle and want colour the lives of the majority of “urbs” – city residents.

These central chapters give rise to an unexpected friendship between Peony and Esmeralda, the young girl for whose family Peony works.  Although this section provided variety and interest, as well as a chance for both levels of the social strata to see each others’ good points, it seemed a bit out of place with the beginnings of the story.  This is a moot point however, because the tale twists again toward the end and although Peony will encounter despair, hardship and grief before the end of the novel, an unexpected jolt of hope is injected from two directions in the final chapter.

Overall, this is a family drama, an environmental warning and a portrait of the kind of society that we are sliding towards held together by an engaging and determined narrator.  I’d recommend this for middle-grade aged readers who enjoy books set in alternate worlds, as well as to older readers looking for a middle grade read that sits outside the expected.

Until next time,

Bruce

Giveaway! Quarantine: The Loners by Lex Thomas

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It’s giveaway time!  I received a copy of Quarantine: The Loners by Lex Thomas from Walker Books Australia for review.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t my cup of tea – more about that in a minute – so it’s time to send it on to a more loving home.  To enter the giveaway, which is open internationally (hooray!), scroll down a bit.  But if you actually want to know something about the book you are hoping to win, here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

It was just another ordinary day at McKinley High—until a massive explosion devastated the school. When loner David Thorpe tried to help his English teacher to safety, the teacher convulsed and died right in front of him. And that was just the beginning.

A year later, McKinley has descended into chaos. All the students are infected with a virus that makes them deadly to adults. The school is under military quarantine. The teachers are gone. Violent gangs have formed based on high school social cliques. Without a gang, you’re as good as dead. And David has no gang. It’s just him and his little brother, Will, against the whole school.

quarantine

I had high hopes for this one but unfortunately I gave up after about four chapters and 45ish pages.  I had three main problems with what I read.  The first of these is that the narrative style focused far more on telling than showing, and so I didn’t feel drawn in to the story.

The second is that the major plot point of the book – that the kids have somehow contracted a virus that is deadly to adults – is just sort of plonked into the text.  There is no indication of how this happened or why or anything.  Admittedly, this could be explained after page 45 and I would be none the wiser, but essentially what I’m saying is that there was not enough believable world-building in the early stages for me to want to stick with it.

**For examples of parts of the story that stopped me from suspending my disbelief, see the below paragraphs.  If you take my word for it, feel free to skip the below paragraphs**

Examples of this include the fact that the army has cordoned off the school within minutes of the first teacher’s death – why (and how??) could they do this unless they were involved? (I don’t know if they’re involved because I finished at page 45, but this was the only logical reason I could think of for the army to be there so quick.)

Another example is the fact that the teacher who dies in front of David (the main character) takes time out from vomiting up his internal organs to warn David to “stay back!”.  Why? If I was literally spewing my guts up, I’d want the nearest person to help me, not stay back.  Did the teacher know that David was causing his death, and if so, how did he know?

Finally, there is a scene in which the boys carry the corpse of the aforementioned dead teacher to a sort of makeshift burial ground (actually, a collection of lockers).  This scene is noted as being two weeks after the death of the teacher.  At no point are maggots mentioned.  I would have expected (and the most cursory of glances at the first webpage about corpse decomposition I came across confirms this) that the body, at two weeks after death, would be crawling with maggots and doused in more than a little seepage of bodily fluid.  Yet this is not mentioned.  Further to this, the teacher-burial-locker thing seems quite an organised operation, but no mention is made of who organised it, how everyone agreed to it etc, etc….

**Okay, examples over.  Normal service now resumes**

The straw that broke the gargoyle’s back however, was a mention on pages 44 and 45 that was particularly telling to me regarding how women were going to be portrayed in this book.

Picture it: A month after hundreds of teenagers are left to their own devices in a locked school, with food only provided through occasional airdrops, the main characters burst into a girl’s toilet while on the run from an angry mob.  This is mere pages after a boy is stabbed through the throat with a piece of wood.  Guess what the girls in the bathroom are doing.

Go on, guess.

Dying their hair with a packet of Kool-Aid.

I effing kid you not.

So, the authors expect us to believe that in a life-or-death situation, wherein food is scarce and, as has just been demonstrated, people will literally KILL to get it, these young ladies are not only misusing a foodstuff that could be used to boost their daily calorie intake, but are also seemingly more worried about their looks than, oh, I don’t know, being locked up with hundreds of hormonal, angry, mob-based teen boys where the risk of rape or violent attack would be astronomical.

And so I stopped reading.  Because if the lacklustre narrative style and lack of basic research weren’t bad enough, there was no way I was going to sit through a book in which young women are portrayed as looks-obsessed halfwits even as the world collapses around them.

Having said that, the book is getting a majority of four and five star reviews on Goodreads, so what the hell do I know?  Hence, the giveaway!

If you would like to be the forever home of Quarantine: The Loners (kindly provided by Walker Books Australia), just click on the rafflecopter link below.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Good luck!

Until next time,

Bruce

Remade: A Jelly-Legs-Inducing, YA Read-it-if Review…

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read it if NEW BUTTON

Even though today’s book is pitched at YA readers, it is not for the faint of heart!  Remade by Alex Scarrow is a post-apocalyptic thriller that, suprisingly, given our general aversion to post-apocalyptic fare, we couldn’t devour fast enough.  We were lucky enough to receive a copy from PanMacmillan Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Leon and his younger sister, Grace, have recently moved to London from New York and are struggling to settle into their new school when rumours of an unidentified virus in Africa begin to fill the news. Within a week the virus hits London. The siblings witness people turning to liquid before their eyes, and they run for their lives. A month after touching Earth’s atmosphere the virus has assimilated the world’s biomass. But the virus isn’t their only enemy, and survival is just the first step . . .

remade

Read it if:

*your response to any kind of catastrophe, from burning the toast to the coming of the end of days, is decidedly British: to have a cup of tea and a good lie down

*when you hear potential bad news reported in the media, your first port-of-call is a web forum for conspiracy theorists to find out what’s REALLY going on

*you don’t care for train travel (or indeed, public transport of any kind) on account of the fact that it provides no escape from the press of unwashed humanity

*you firmly believe that even though the human race has been reduced to a handful of scraggly survivors, that’s no reason to abandon good manners

The suspense in the opening chapters of this book was so craftily built up that it snatched me with its suspenseful claws and had me halfway through the book before I stopped for a break.  I knocked the rest over in just a few short sittings and I am pleased to say that this is a quality series opener with a very creepy premise.  Essentially, a virus appears in Africa with the unfortunate consequence that those who acquire it become reduced to jelly and then bones within minutes.  Worse than that however, is the suggestion that the virus may actually go looking for further quarry once the original host has been devoured.

Once it becomes obvious that the virus isn’t some 48-hour flash in the pan, there is a sense of inevitability exuded in the narration of the story.  Leon, Grace and their mother, while attempting to flee the spread of the virus, retain a certain resignation that infection and jellification will feature largely in their individual near-futures.  There was something about the inescapable nature of this virus and the extremely short-term goal setting it inspires in the main characters that was reassuring to me and I think allowed me to enjoy this story more than other post-apocalyptic YA novels I’ve read.  I didn’t have to worry about the ways in which they might achieve survival months or years down the track because there was a very real chance that they would be nought but a pile of bones within the next few moments.

My favourite part of the novel is an over-riding sense of Britishness that pervades it.  I realise that politeness and orderliness are not solely the province of the British, but there was such a feeling of warm familiarity that came over me as I was reading – particularly during the scene on the train – that I allowed myself a little chuckle at the fact that even during the collapse of civilisation, these characters were still prepared to maintain a semblance of decorum,  stiff-upper-lippedness and general good manners.

The virus itself is a clever character, if I may use that term, because it is unlike any virus that microbiologists have yet encountered.  It seems to evolve in stages, developing different ways of threatening those it didn’t mince first time around, thus providing for new and interesting dangers for our protagonists beyond the immediate run away screaming type response.   The ending provides a fantastic cliff-hanger in this regard and I would be interested to see where the story goes next.  Having said that, there is enough action and creepiness and character building going on in this novel to ward off feelings of desperation regarding the next stage in the story.

There are a few aspects of the plot that might grate on more seasoned readers of post-apocalyptic tales than I (convenient access to resources required for survival, for instance) and I did have a few questions when the reason behind the protagonists supposed “immunity” was revealed (namely that, based on my casual, and not at all scientific, calculations, I would have expected a much higher rate of survival given the key “immunity” factor).  These plot holes didn’t bother me too much though, mainly due to the absorbing action of the story and the excellent pacing.

While I will keep an eye out for the next book, I’m satisfied to wait for a bit and digest (pardon the pun) the relationships and character growth presented in this impressive offering.  I’d definitely recommend having a bash at this one if you are looking for a good old-fashioned scare-a-thon with a large helping of hope.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

Fiction in 50 June Challenge: Exit, Stage Left…

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Welcome to the halfway point for micro-fictioneers: the June challenge for Fiction in 50!  We always love new (and sporadic!) contributors, so if you’d like to play along simply create a piece of fiction or poetry in fewer than 51 words and pop your link in the comments for this post.  For more detailed instructions and to get a heads-up on upcoming prompts (the next six months’ worth are now up!) just click here.  Don’t forget if you’re sharing on Twitter to use the hashtag #Fi50.

So the prompt for this month is the rather theatrical…

june fi50 button

..and so I have written an appropriately non-theatrical, post-apocalyptic, sci-fi, dram-com.  I have titled it:

Earth’s Technopolypse: The Aftermath

The Intergalactic Alliance reported they’d never seen such a swift decimation of a dominant species. The rescue ships found only sporadic enclaves of senior citizens; their natural immunity to modern tech proving redemptive.

The survivors claimed resettlement on a resort planet.

It was the first extinction attributed to ageing disgracefully.  

Go you good (old) things! I can’t help but fondly hope that Wilfred Mott was among their number, at least in spirit.  Now let’s see your efforts!

For those who like to plan ahead, July’s prompt will be…

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Until next time,

Bruce

 

Bruce’s Reading Round-Up: Robots, Insomnia and Plague…

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Welcome to another reading round-up! Today we have a bit of YA thriller, a bit of literary fiction and a bit of graphic novel gore, so hopefully you’ll find something you like within the herd.  I received two of these titles from their respective publishers via Netgalley, and a third from the author.  Let’s ride!

Sleepless: Narrowdale #1 (Michael Omer)

Two Sentence Synopsis:sleepless

When Amy moved from L.A. to the boring suburb of Narrowdale she was pretty sure she was about to experience some big changes in her life – not necessarily for the better. Finding new friends turns out to be the least of her worries however and when the terrifyingly realistic nightmares begin, Amy knows that there’s something strange running beneath the ordinary exterior of her new town.

Muster up the motivation because:

This is a fairly original and engaging take on a paranormal horror story for the YA set. It’s probably not going to win any awards for the standard of the writing, but there’s plenty of spook factor here – cue creepy whistling outside a young girl’s window at night – and enough snarky banter to keep the young folk interested. Omer has created an interesting setting in Narrowdale, where the homeless folk seem to be telepathic (and mildly prescient) and you’re never quite sure whether you’re talking to an ordinary person or a revenant from the past, so for that alone, this is worth a look.  Extra points for the awesome cover art.

Brand it with:

Catchy tunes; missing, presumed dead; heated daydreams, YA paranormal

Spread: Volume 1 (Justin Jordan, Kyle Strahm [ill], Felipe Sobreiro [ill])

Two Sentence Synopsis:Spread-Preview-1

A bloke named No is trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic, plague-ridden world, when he stumbles across a dead woman’s baby. No’s life looks set to become far more complicated, until the baby inadvertently reveals an extremely handy post-apocalyptic, plague-destroying ability.

Muster up the motivation because:

If gore and blood splats and hand-to-hand violence is your kind of thing, Spread will be right up your plague-festering alley. If you like heartwarming stories featuring gruff men saving cute little babies, this will also be right up your alley (presuming you can handle large amounts of blood-splatting gore). I don’t normally go for highly violent graphic novels, but I picked this one up because the fantastic juxtaposition of No and baby (named Hope, for the present time) on the cover screamed “Oddity Odyssey Challenge!” at me and I found that the story was engaging enough that I could put up with the graphic violence. I quite enjoyed the wily and carnivorous ways of the plague creatures too, and No is really just a big softy carrying a throwing axe.

Brand it with:

Post-apocalyptic cuteness, awwww-ful violence, fun with plague creatures

A Robot in the Garden (Deborah Install)

Two Sentence Synopsis:robot in the garden

Ben wanders outside one day to find a decrepit and slightly confused robot sitting under his tree, looking at the horses. Ben seems to think the robot – Tang – can be useful, but is there really a place in a world full of android servants for a rustbucket like Tang?

Muster up the motivation because:

If nothing else, this is a cute story of an unlikely friendship. The plot arc is fairly predictable – underachieving man finds useless robot and tries to integrate it into his home, man stubbornly sticks with robot despite disruption to his marriage, man undergoes dramatic personal change and rectifies underachieving ways with robot in tow. I didn’t really connect with the character of Ben (or Tang, for that matter) and so I think that affected my enjoyment of the overall story but if you’re looking for a gentle, unusual and fairly humorous story featuring unexpected robots, this would be a good pick.

Brand it with:

DIY, it’s-me-or-the-robot, postmodern fable, artificial intelligence

So there you have it, another herd of wild books rounded up and safely corralled.  Hopefully there’s something in there that takes your fancy.  I’m also submitting Spread for the Oddity Odyssey Reading Challenge under the category of odd subject matter, because I don’t normally read such graphically violent books.  Particularly graphically violent books narrated by a baby.  If you’d like to find out more about the challenge, just click this button:

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Progress toward Oddity Odyssey Reading Challenge Goal: 7/16

Until next time,

Bruce