Tag Archives: coming of age novels

Book Review: The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell

The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell (HarperCollins; 336 pages; $25.99).


            Lisa O’Donnell opens her brilliant, stunning debut The Death of Bees with the birth and death dates of a man and woman, the same kinds of information you would expect on gravestones.  Except this man and woman do not have headstones; they are buried in their own backyard.

“Today is Christmas Eve,” O’Donnell writes in her intriguing and explosive opening.  “Today is my birthday.  Today I am fifteen.  Today I buried my parents in the backyard.  Neither of them were beloved.”

Immediately, she grabs you by the throat and does not let go until the very last page as she tells the story of fifteen-year-old Marnie and twelve-year-old Nelly, sisters who have just lost their parents and find themselves alone.

Marnie is the tough, practical, and protective one, the typical elder sister.  Marnie is fifteen going on thirty, though, and as cynical as a sixty-year-old.  Nelly is her complete opposite, charming and so obsessed with Harry Potter that she wears glasses just like his.  “Another little foible of Nelly’s is how she talks.  She sounds like the queen of England most of the time.”  Nelly, fond of words like “hullabaloo,” “confounded,” and “good golly” seems so young next to Marnie.  Their three-year age difference feels more like three decades.

I couldn’t help but wonder if the girls, namely Marnie, killed their parents.  Marnie confesses as she buries them: “I was on autopilot.  I wanted them buried and gone.  I didn’t have time for tears, I knew we had a job to do and mostly I was wishing we’d got rid of them sooner and, to be honest, I don’t know why we didn’t.”

Neither sister misses her mother nor her father.  Most of the time, Izzy and Gene were too stoned to care about their daughters, often leaving the girls to fend for themselves.  Marnie practically raised herself, and now she is raising Nelly.  Their lives are not that much different than they were before…except for the bodies in the backyard, of course.

Marnie knows the upturned dirt will be a tell-tale sign of something untoward.  Ever pragmatic, Marie has a solution.  “When all was done we covered Izzy with two sacks of coal and planted lavender on top of Gene, not out of sentiment you understand, but to better hide what was buried in the earth.”

The girls keep mum about their parents’ deaths.  All the sisters really have is each other.  In just a short year, Marnie will turn sixteen, the age when she will be considered an adult and can legally take care of herself and Nelly.

Things do not go as planned when Lennie, their elderly next-door neighbor, notices the sisters are alone and takes an interest in them.  He is concerned about their parents’ whereabouts and invites them into his home and into his heart.

The reluctant Marnie calls Lennie a pervert and keeps him at arms’ length.  However, Lennie is lonely and loving, and both sisters warm to him when he shows them more understanding and affection than their parents ever did.  But he knows something is not quite right next door.

Gene’s drug dealer knows it, too.  When he begins asking questions and when a long-lost family member turns up, the girls’ scheme begins to unravel.  The girls’ home, the haven they constructed for themselves, is threatened.  Their struggle to stay together and away from foster care seems doomed.  But Marnie, ever resourceful, should never be counted out.

The Death of Bees is an unflinching portrait of how so many young people are forced to rear themselves.  They are forgotten and slip through the cracks of the urban landscape, lost in the sprawl and even lost in their own families.  Lennie is the girls’ savior; without him, the story and their fates would have been very different.

The distinctive voices of Marnie, Nelly, and Lennie alternately narrate The Death of Bees. O’Donnell writes this coming-of-age story in pitch-perfect prose.    Both Marnie and Nelly join the elite club of young girls who literally come of age on the page, a group that includes Ava Bigtree (Swamplandia!) and Lily Owens (The Secret Life of Bees).

Coming-of-age can sting, just like a bee.  O’Donnell gives us painful instances of violence, abuse, and molestation that are achingly real but difficult to read.  The Death of Bees is a grim and, at times, depressing tale, tempered by sisterly affection, humor, hope, and, above all, love.

The author

The author




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Book Review: Black Crow White Lie by Candi Sary

Black Crow White Lie by Candi Sary (Casperian Books; 162 pages; $13.50).

                In her debut Black Crow White Lie, a semifinalist for the 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, Candi Sary proves she is a talented new literary voice.  Her coming-of-agetale explores adolescence and identity.  With authentic prose and a compelling plot, Black Crow White Lie is engaging, entertaining, and highly readable.

Twelve-year-old Carson Calley lives in Hollywood motels with his unstable, alcoholic mother and roams the streets.  The two have a close bond, despite her frequent inebriation.  She tells him stories of their past lives.

“We were Indians—California Indians.  This pale skin,” Sary writes, “was once native brown.  And these legs of yours were once big and strong so that you could run after deer and shoot them with your arrows, and then bring the meat back to me.”

From a very young age, his mother told him he was destined for greatness, just as he was in his previous life.  “You were the treasure of our tribe…You were destined to be the great medicine man, the great healer who would take away all the pain and disease and suffering of our people.”  In that life, though, his destiny was brutally cut short when he was killed.

After thousands of years, Carson’s mother explains, the two spirits are reunited as mother and son.  His mother is convinced that Carson has a purpose.  “You have finally come back to fulfill your destiny.  Carson…you are the great healer of our time.”

Carson does have healing powers.  When his mother is sick, he lays his hands on her and feels “tiny stars gather” in his hands.  After a few minutes, she is well again.  Carson does seem to have a very rare gift.  Yet, Carson cannot cure his own loneliness.

With his mother out late with her married lover, Carson wanders around Hollywood.  Hollywood is the perfect setting for Black Crow White Lie.  In this setting, Sary is able to people her tale with some intriguing and unique characters, people you might not find if this story had been set elsewhere.  Looking for friendship, Carson stumbles into a head shop, where he meets its owner: an albino named Casper (no, that’s not his real name).  Casper is deaf in one ear.  After Carson heals Casper, the head shop owner talks the boy into practicing in a room in the back of the store.  He accepts.  Word spreads, and long lines wait outside to see the “Boy Healer.”

Carson also meets Faris, a tattoo artist.  Faris becomes a father figure for Carson, whose father is buried in Washington, D.C. in the “cemetery of heroes.”  It is Faris who gives Carson his first tattoo, a black crow, symbolizing a story about his deceased father.

With his mother in and out, Carson relies mostly on himself.  A huge weight is on his young shoulders.  Add the heartaches of first love to the mix, and it is easy to understand the fear and anger Carson sometimes feels.

Carson thinks he knows just who he is: a son, a friend, a caregiver, and a healer.  Yet a series of stunning revelations makes Carson question who he is and what he can do.  He undergoes a crisis of identity at such a tender age.  Can he really heal the sick?  Is he a fraud?  Has his mother been lying to him all these years?

Sary handles this all with tenderness and ease.  Carson is her most well-developed character, and he drives the story.  Yet Sary’s plot is deft and satisfying.  Her setting is apropos for her story.  I can’t wait to see more of Sary’s work.  Black Crow White Lie is an indication of a highly skilled storyteller with a bright future ahead of her.

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Book Review: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

The Round House by Louise Erdrich (Harper; 336 pages; $26.99).

Louise Erdrich’s new novel The Round House is quite a departure from her previous novels.  Typically, Erdrich writes from multiple perspectives, with each narrative contributing a little window into a larger world.  She switches gears with The Round House, winner of a 2012 National Book Award in fiction.  Joe Coutts, her primary narrator and an Ojibwe Indian, recalls a horrific crime that occurred when he was thirteen.  A cacophony of voices is unnecessary in The Round House; Joe drives Erdrich’s story, and his voice speaks volumes.

Like Erdrich’s previous works, The Round House is set on a North Dakota Indian reservation.  Erdrich is part Chippewa, and problems facing Native American communities mean a great deal to her, as they should to us all.  In The Round House, she once again tackles difficult subjects, such as violence against women, crime, and, most glaringly, the injustice of the law.  Unlike her other books, The Round House features an unforgettable young boy on the cusp of adulthood, who transfixes us with his strong, intimate narrative.

Erdrich sets her story in the spring of 1988.  Joe’s mother, Geraldine, is badly beaten and raped.  To the consternation of Joe and his father, Bazil, a judge, Geraldine is reluctant to tell what happened or even where the crime occurred.  Father and son are further dismayed when Geraldine retreats from them and spends her days in bed, eating little and saying nothing.  Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, she is a shell of her former self.

Bazil begins investigating the rape and enlists Joe’s aid.  The boy is more than eager to help his father find the culprit.  Bazil knows that he shouldn’t put so much pressure on a boy of 13; he knows he has told Joe too much.  It is too late, however.  Joe is already fixated.

“I wanna get him,” Joe tells his friends Cappy, Angus, and Zack.  Joe wants to avenge his mother and watch the culprit burn.  His love for her is so bright and fierce that he seeks to kill his mother’s rapist.  “Mom, listen,” he tells her.  “I’m going to find him and I’m going to burn him.  I’m going to kill him for you.”

You’d think Joe would not have to make this promise.  You’d think the police would investigate, find the accused, and prosecute him.  It’s not that simple on an Indian reservation, where jurisdiction is key.

Geradline was raped in the round house, a sacred space to the Ojibwe Indians, where they practiced religious ceremonies.  And there lies the conundrum.  An Indian did not commit the crime; a white man is to blame, a man who loathes Indians.  A crime was committed, but “on what land?  Was it tribal land?  Fee land?  White property?  State?  We can’t prosecute if we don’t know which laws apply.”

It seems the rapist violated Geraldine in this sacred space deliberately.  He knew what he was doing and where he was doing it.  In all likelihood, he will not be charged with anything.

Joe cannot let that happen and will use any means necessary to get his revenge.  He will enlist his friends; he will sift through his father’s old case files; he will seek advice from his grandfather; he will garner information from the twin sister of the accused.  If the law is unjust, then Joe will seek his own vigilante justice.

The Round House is part coming-of-age story and part crime novel.  Erdrich uses humor and pop culture to show how Joe and his friends are obsessed with Star Wars, Star Trek, and girls.  The boys are so close that they would do anything for each other.  Their closeness reflects the tight-knit community they call home, where everybody knows everybody and where everyone looks out for everyone else.  Whatever happens, they will insulate the boys from reprisal.  In a sense, when Geraldine is raped and beaten, the whole town is violated.

Since Joe looks back on these events from an adult viewpoint, he is able to view the crime from two perspectives simultaneously: child and adult.  Joe puts an adult spin on things whenever he can, yet Erdrich manages to capture how the crime shattered his innocence and stole his childhood.  The offense against Geraldine turns Joe into a man.  The crime affected Joe so much that he went on to study law; eventually, Joe becomes a lawyer.  He can tell the story then from a son’s eye, yet with a lawyer’s keen focus.

The Round House illustrates how a senseless crime can forever change a town, a community, a family, and a young man.  Lives are overturned, and relationships are altered.  Yet a boy discovers the power of friendship and understands the meaning of giving one’s word.  That same youth becomes a man in this tale and finds his life’s calling– to seek justice even in the unlikeliest of places.  Erdrich instinctively knows when it takes a chorus to tell a story and when only one voice is needed.

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Book Review: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker (Random House; 288 pages; $26).

Forget armed conflict, viruses, terrorism and nuclear war. The people in Karen Thompson Walker’s elegiac, dark and gripping debut novel, “The Age of Miracles,” have other, more important things to worry about — namely, the effects of “the slowing” of Earth.

Walker, a former Simon & Schuster editor, combines science fiction and speculative fiction with a coming-of-age story. The effect is somber yet dazzling; I had never read anything like it.

(To read more of this book review that I wrote for the Mobile Press-Register, please go here.)



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Coming of Age in the 60s

Are you looking for a great summer read?  Are you a fan of Fannie Flagg?

If you answer “yes” to any of those questions, please add Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea by Morgan Callan Rogers to your summer reading list.  You will be glad you did!

I reviewed Rogers’s novel for the Mobile Press-Register.  To read my review of the novel, please go here.

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Spotlight on An Uncommon Education

My current read, Elizabeth Percer’s An Uncommon Education, is a rare breed indeed.  The heroine had me at the first page and she has not let go since.

Naomi Feinstein has a penchant for saving those closest to her.  She also steals a photo of Amelia Earhart that once belonged to Rosemary Kennedy from the Boston house where JFK was born.  Naomi saved it, too, you see.

Nothing about Naomi is ordinary.  Her education and her memory are stellar.  She is the force that drives Percer’s quirky debut.

Elizabeth Percer–you should remember that name.  She’ll be around a long time, or at least according to the promise she shows in An Uncommon Education.

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