Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell

“Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today, I am 15. Today, I buried my parents in the backyard. Neither of them were beloved.”

So opens “The Death of Bees,” in the voice of Marnie, one of two quirky young girls freshly orphaned from alcoholic, drug-addicted parents who neglected and abused them.

Their father, Gene, is found dead in bed. Their mother, Izzy, hangs herself the day after.

Gene lays rotting for a while before the girls drag his swollen decaying body out to be buried under some lavender. The girls hide Izzy under the shed before burying her eventually as well. After all, these things take time.

With parents’ bodies mostly hidden, Marnie and Nelly are trying to keep everyone none the wiser. It is only one year until Marnie becomes of age and can take care of Nelly alone. They try to stay together and independent. They try to keep the neighbor’s dog from uncovering the body parts. The world has other plans.

Their neighbor, Lennie, notices that the girls’ parents are missing and takes them under his wing. He offers them food, a place to sleep and helps them with their homework. He gives them companionship, guidance and affection. Lennie is gay, his lover is dead, and he went looking for love in the wrong place. As a result, he is a man broken under societal scrutiny and hate. He is incredibly lonely.

The girls’ grandfather, Robert T. Macdonald, abandoned Izzy when she got pregnant. He turns up suddenly wanting to find Izzy and desperately tries to lure the girls from Lennie.

Fighting against those trying to help and hinder them, are two girls with very distinct personalities. Marnie, tough as nails, is already hardened by cruel experience. She sells drugs and has adulterous sex with Gene’s ex-dealer. Nelly reacts to everything from her own unique perspective. Her speech is filled with turns of phrase such as “good ruddy riddance” and “loathsome malignant fellow.” People often don’t know how to react to her and she to them.

As the girls try to stay one step ahead of their grandfather, their friends, their school and various authorities; lies begin to unravel secret by secret.

Told in the voices of Marnie, Nelly and Lennie, “The Death of Bees” is a darkly humorous novel about three people trying to keep out the world while finding a way to take care of each other.

(Originally written for my book column in The Victoria Advocate )

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A life story

We mark with light in the memory the few interviews we have had with souls that made our souls wiser, that spoke what we thought, that told us what we knew, that gave us leave to be what we inly are.”  – David Richo

I am covering a funeral tomorrow of a very special man to this community. He has let our journalists follow his everyday life, his struggle with illness and now, the final chapter, his death. We have shared in everything from his surprise birthday party to a date with his girlfriend. We’ve spent hours hanging out with his family at the hospital, in their home or out in the community at events. We have been witnesses to how many friends, family members and acquaintances he has touched in his lifetime. Though I am confident in my ability to cover this funeral because I am creating the video, I find myself daunted by our writer’s part in this story. How do you find the words to encompass a whole person? How do you do justice to someone who has touched so many people? Maybe it is simply because I am not a writer, but I would love and be completely intimidated by the honor of writing a person’s last chapter. How do you capture it all? The history, humor, hope, faith and everlasting love of a lifetime. I believe that the ability to write it, and write it well, is an amazing achievement.

So in honor of true stories of all shapes and sizes, of everyone who has had their life written down with the eloquence and emotion it deserves, I wanted to dedicate a post to some great new non-fiction.

  A STOLEN LIFE, by Jaycee Dugard. (Simon & Schuster, $24.99.) A woman tells of being kidnapped at the age of 11 and held prisoner for 18 years by a convicted rapist and his wife.

I have not started this book but it is on my TBR shelf. To not only experience something that difficult but to share it with the world? She sounds like an incredibly brave person and I can’t wait to read her story.

  UNBROKEN, by Laura Hillenbrand. (Random House, $27.) An Olympic runner’s story of survival as a prisoner of the Japanese in World War II.

I have just started Unbroken this week and I can tell you just from the first few chapters that this book is beautifully written. It has elegant imagery and moments I know will stay with me long after I’ve finished. You should see my copy, highlights galore.

  BOSSYPANTS, by Tina Fey. (Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown, $26.99.) A memoir from the creator of “30 Rock.”

Though this is not so new anymore, it still deserves a mention because a lot of people I know haven’t read it yet. We do need the stories of survival, but we also need the stories that make us laugh.

  TURN RIGHT AT MACHU PICCHU by Mark Adams. (Dutton, $26.95.) Retracing the steps of the ancient city’s discoverers.

Sounds an interesting journey for those that have and have not visited Machu Picchu. It is an astonishing place that may be closed to the public soon because of too much tourism. So if you never get to see it, this book might be the next best thing.

Non-fiction is compelling because it is so often startlingly brave and true. To know that another person has struggled, has fought, has suffered and somehow, has triumphed, is a message we all need sometimes. The resilience and power of the human spirit is an important feat we all must witness, whether it be in our own everyday life, or in the lives of those whom we read about in books.

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

It amazes me how easy it is for things to change, how easy it is to start off down the same road you always take and wind up somewhere new. Just one false step, one pause, one detour, and you end up with new friends or a bad reputation or a boyfriend or a breakup. It’s never occurred to me before; I’ve never been able to see it. And it makes me feel, weirdly, like maybe all of these different possibilities exist at the same time, like each moment we live has a thousand other moments layered underneath it that look different.”

To be honest, I didn’t actually think I’d like this book. The plot sounded too predictable (having to do one day over and over again until you get it right) and reading the first chapter made me hate the main character. Sam Kingston, popular, pretty, has the boyfriend everyone wants, wakes up on ‘Cupid Day’ a day when everyone in the school is sent roses and whoever gets the most roses is considered the most popular. She and her clique go through they day as usual, being horrible to those less popular than them, joking about Sam losing her virginity and then going to a party thrown by a Kent, a childhood friend that Sam used to be close with but now ignores. The first time Sam goes through this day she is selfish and mean, not realizing how her actions (and the actions of her best friends) affect those around her.

That night, she dies.

And then she wakes up to the same day, all over again. At first when she realizes this, she becomes even more reckless and heartless. But when she dies again and small things change because of her choices, she begins to change too. She starts to see that even the smallest, harmless seeming choices can have consequences.

Its a fast paced story, especially after the first chapter which felt a bit slow to me (mostly because I wanted to smack Sam and her friends for being such mindless jerks.) After that, the story captured me and kept me until the end. I did become emotionally invested in Sam’s life. I was rooting for her to turn her life around and change her ending.

What I liked most was that this book isn’t really about happy endings or her ending up with the guy she should have been with all along (although we all do like to see the nice guys get noticed.) Its about Sam, a typical teenager, learning to make better choices and learning to be brave enough to be kind.

‘Before I fall’ ends leaving you feeling that you just witnessed something sad, beautiful and not to be missed.