The Bees by Laline Paull

I was intrigued by this book. Sci-fi on the Baileys Prize shortlist – surely that has to be a good thing, though I wasn’t sure if I fancied reading it. Then a friend lent me a copy and said she hadn’t been able to put it down, so I dived in.

Now I should say right here that I’m often mistrustful of SF in the mainstream, I am after all one of those left-wingers that doesn’t know what to do when we’re not the underdog, so if it’s popular I assume I couldn’t possibly like it. I’m also an avoider of literary prizes, in general. I have read prize-winners (AS Byatt’s Possession, for instance, which friend T bought me knowing exactly why I’d love it) but I don’t deliberately do so, I tend to have the impression that they’ll be dull but worthy. Awfully well-written and clever, but not necessarily gripping. So, with The Bees I was wary but hopeful, shall we say.

I tried. I read much more than I would have done if I hadn’t been lent it. I was intending to review it for Luna Station Quarterly but I couldn’t bring myself to finish it and even if I had I wouldn’t have been able to recommend other people spend hours of their lives on it. Perhaps the way to summarise it is ‘it’s just not my cup of tea’, though I do think there might be some truth in the whisper at the back of my mind that says ‘this is SF for people who don’t read SF, hence it’s on a mainstream prize shortlist’. It felt simplistic with heavy-handed analogies, it felt like a children’s book (except for the inclusion of a word that could be mistaken for the Health Secretary’s surname), it felt like a string of events with no connection other than proximity or coincidence. It was the kind of wet story (all warm fuzzy feelings, and babies) that puts me off reading female-authored sci-fi – this is the kind of thing I’m worried I’ll get.

Flora 717 is a sanitation bee in a hive which was vividly imagined and well described – I really liked the importance of scents, and the use of scents as masks (‘invisibility cloaks’ if you like) or messages. However, the hive is suffering, pesticides and climate change the apparent culprits. Flora 717 gradually gets shoved higher up the ranks because these are desperate times. It’s never explained, though, why she can speak when other sanitation bees can’t, why she manages to start speaking again after she’s had something done to her to make her lose the ability, why she can suddenly understand the dance of a forager when she shouldn’t be able to, why she picks up on the hive mind which is such a rare honour. I did also wonder why the hive mind wasn’t picked up by more than a few of them, all the time, but then I don’t know much about bees so maybe I’ve misunderstood how it works.

This book has been immensely popular and had many favourable reviews, so I’m clearly out of step with received opinion (there’s a surprise) but if you share my SF tastes I doubt you’ll enjoy it.

If you are interested in bees and sci-fi, but like it a little more robust, OneMonkey recommends The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees by E Lily Yu.

Audio delights from the Ilkley Literature Festival

I finally got hold of a decent microphone and recorded my story from this year’s fringe event, and as a bonus I recorded the story I didn’t use, as well. You may recall that Ilkley Writers (which includes me) made their second appearance at the Ilkley Literature Festival in October

Ilkley Writers 2015 flyerBy the time we got to the festival, the stories we performed were only linked by the River Wharfe – set by it, in it, on it, the stories all had its waters trickling through them in some way. Mine was called Down to the River, and followed a woman walking beside the river, watching the water flow downstream to Tadcaster and her past. You can hear me reading it here on this embedded flash player device:

Right at the start of the process, however, we’d decided to do a more tightly linked set than the previous year (when our stories had been linked only by featuring Ilkley Moor) and we devised a character that would feature throughout. He was a kind of hermit, or a tramp who didn’t stray very far, dressed in monkish robes and largely keeping out of everyone’s way. We were each writing a monologue that shed light on his life through whichever character we’d chosen to portray, but not everyone was inspired by our hermit and not everyone felt comfortable with a monologue. Patrick stuck with his monologue from the hermit’s point of view, and that became our opening piece at this year’s event. I ditched mine as I didn’t think it made as much sense out of context, but I enjoyed writing it and it’s very much a performance piece so rather than put a written version anywhere I’ve now recorded that as well and in a world exclusive you can listen to it for the very first time right here, right now (unless of course you’re reading this ages after I wrote this post, in which case – I hope – someone else will have already beat you to it):

Thank you and good night.

Stuart Maconie The People’s Songs


After we’d been to see Stuart Maconie at the Ilkley Literature Festival last month, OneMonkey bought me The People’s Songs, which wasn’t the book he’d been talking about but was nevertheless appealing to the bit of me that is forever fifteen and immersed in the Guinness book indie and new wave. Not only is this a lovely piece of music nerdery it’s a social history of Britain since the second world war. In other words right up my street.

Each chapter is named after a popular song. Not necessarily a number one and certainly not all cool (Y Viva Espana anyone?), I hadn’t even heard of all of them. However, the idea was that they were representative of something crucial about modern Britain, from immigration to trade unions, youth subcultures to Mrs Thatcher.

Running chronologically from the 40s to 2012 the songs were by no means evenly spread, with at least two from 1984 for instance and only 50 chapters. Within each chapter though the narrative jumps around to whichever years are appropriate. Some chapters are strongly based on the titular song, others use it simply as a jumping off point.

If you like Stuart Maconie’s style on the radio you’ll enjoy the witty, verbose prose full of interesting but not necessarily relevant asides. I bored OneMonkey to tears with my ‘did you know..?’ after every couple of pages, and I listened to more Smiths songs the last couple of weeks than I have in ages. I even went to spotify and tried some Ewan Macoll which I’m sure Big Brother will be pleased about.

Ilkley Literature Festival: parting notes

This year’s festival finished over a week ago and I’m still catching up with the things that were put aside because of it, the notes I wrote during it, and the thoughts I meant to write down but never did (which have been buzzing round my head with decreasing energy ever since). You can tell how much catching up I need to do by the fact that the first line said ‘finished on Sunday’ when I started to write this post…

I took part in the Open Mic on the final Sunday evening. An interesting experience and I’m glad I tried it, but I wouldn’t do it again with prose. 16 of the 19 performers were poets, the judges were poets, the compere was a poet, and even the email said ‘you have been chosen to read your poetry’ (which gave me a moment of panic when I got it). So reading a comic fantasy story that took all but 4 seconds of the allotted 3 minutes did make me feel a little out of place. One chap did a humorous monologue on changing his life, with the refrain ‘it’s not for me’ – which I found myself saying at appropriate junctures last week, with a laugh (when the person offering you a slice of cake hasn’t heard the monologue, you just come across as odd). There was also a fabulous poem about spades, bane of poets because you have to call a spade a spade.

Two weeks ago I went to see Mark Thomas, who sometimes seems to do things just to get a rise out of people, but more often than not there’s a point to it and he causes change. And he’s very funny. I confess I was a little uncomfortable when he seemed to be saying that it’s all one big art project, a sort of performance and participation art. How is a gruff northern ‘modern art? It’s just an empty room with faulty light fittings’ socialist supposed to reconcile that with Mark Thomas being an angry, funny, long-standing left-wing activist who makes a difference?

There were a few other events I either didn’t enjoy enough or didn’t understand enough to write about here, and I’ve probably forgotten deeply insightful things I thought in the gaps between events (festival time does involve a lot of waiting around). However, that’s all for this year. The festival blog is apparently spreading its event reviews over the next couple of months rather than putting them all up in an exciting flurry (don’t ask me why), so you can continue to discover new views on the events over there for a while yet.

Ilkley Literature Festival review: Liza Klaussmann and Jami Attenberg

Liza Klaussmann and Jami Attenberg were paired up on Sunday afternoon at the Ilkley Literature Festival because as well as both being American, both women have recently written novels whose main characters were real people. The idea fascinated me as I wanted to know whether all that historical detail helps or hinders a writer of fiction, and how much you should worry about misrepresenting them.

Liza’s novel (her second) is Villa America (which I’m afraid I haven’t read), bringing Sara and Gerald Murphy to centre stage amid their friends Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso etc, in 1920s France. Because most of her central characters were well-known and well-documented, Liza commented that she felt quite constrained in what she could write, having to ensure that everyone was in certain locations doing certain things at certain times, because it’s known that this was the case (in fact she said she envied Jami’s freedom, more of which in a moment). To give her an outlet for fiction – as she said, she’s a ‘professional liar’ and it’s hard not to make things up! – she invented a character who then threads among the real figures helping to bring out their inner lives.

Jami’s fifth book is Saint Mazie, which I’ve already reviewed here. Set in New York predominantly during the first 3 decades of the 20th century, it introduces us to Mazie Gordon-Phillips the ‘Queen of the Bowery’ who ran a cinema by day and helped homeless men at night. By contrast to the Murphys, almost nothing is recorded about Mazie, in fact Jami mentioned she’d found only two articles (on Mazie’s retirement and memorial service) and an obituary. One of the articles mentions that Mazie was going to write her memoirs, but they never seem to have appeared, and from such a tantalising glimpse into this extraordinary woman’s life Jami set out to write the memoirs that she would have loved to read. She knew a few places that Mazie had lived, and from that (and some trips around the relevant neighbourhoods in New York) she crafted her novel.

During the question and answer session I asked Jami what had made her structure the novel in the way she had, with Mazie’s diary entries, a few excerpts from her memoirs, interviews with people who’d known her, all woven together. She explained that she’d started out writing a straightforward memoir, with Mazie looking back on her life and telling her story, but it hadn’t felt immediate enough and she switched to the diary which lands the reader right into the events as they’re happening, with the interviewees adding a different viewpoint or the benefit of hindsight.

Both authors talked about the importance of book clubs, with the members buying the novel then recommending it to friends and family (the importance of word of mouth promotion). However, they did also mention the daunting task of doing skype interviews with book clubs. Liza had found the book clubbers to be keen and well-read, comparing her work to things she hadn’t read herself, and asking tough questions.

One last thing I’ll mention here is book covers. They were asked how much input they have into the covers of their books, and it sounds like sometimes at least they do have a choice. However, Jami told us about one of her books (which must be The Melting Season) where the cover was a woman running through a field of wheat (sure to appeal to the middle-aged book-clubbing woman) despite the story being ‘scandalous’ (Jami’s word) and about a woman running off to Las Vegas. It did make me think of the whole book cover problem, which I’ve read about before (and which Joanne Harris has handily complained about this week in terms of children’s books) where publishers have a market in mind, and some kind of formula for covers to appeal to that market (how? why?) and they just go with it. It doesn’t seem to have done Jami Attenberg’s career too much harm, though.

Ilkley Literature Festival review: Postcapitalism

Paul Mason from Channel 4 News was at the festival this afternoon to talk about his new book PostCapitalism (he didn’t want to talk about ‘socialism’ because he says his ideas are not like the socialism we’re used to, yet it apparently fits in with the utopian socialist trajectory begun in the 12th century). You can imagine (if you’re at all used to me and my ramblings) that this is just the sort of thing I’d love on a Sunday afternoon. I did enjoy the hour he spent in the King’s Hall more or less lecturing on his pet topic, but I remain unconvinced. And I am, as you may already know, not all that keen on capitalism.

He talked about the sharing economy, and mentioned Wikipedia. I thought ok, people do that for fun, for free, and other people use it but it’s not a widespread model surely. Then he talked about Linux, and Apache, and how large parts of the ‘real’ (capitalist) economy rely on them, and I thought maybe he has a point. There is more to global transactions and society these days than handing over money for stuff.

He talked about the erosion of workers’ rights, and the nature of precarious living, the recent rise of the left in Europe, and the boom-bust economic cycles of the last few decades. Lots of things that left me with more questions than answers. Like how do creative types manage to feed themselves when everyone’s sharing their digital content (photos, music, films, e-books) online for free? He also talked about things like the massive bureaucratic hurdles that make it hard for credit unions and peer to peer lending to get going, meaning we all still rely on the old-fashioned banks.

I would like to read his book, it sounds like it’s full of thought-provoking material, but at 17 quid for a hardback I think I’ll go for the sharing economy approach, and wait till I can borrow it from my local library.

Ilkley Literature Festival Review: What Lies Beneath

Is it cheeky to review your own event? Naturally I’m going to say that the eight members of Ilkley Writers (there are more of us, but only eight on stage last night) gave a wonderful performance at the festival fringe, and if you weren’t there then you completely missed out, but that in a way is by the by.

What I can offer is a backstage view, at least from my perspective. Last night’s performance of eight stories, with a backdrop of a 50-minute silent film of the river Wharfe at various points through Ilkley and Ben Rhydding, accompanied by a glossy programme to say who’s who, and a booklet of seven of the stories for the bargain price of £2, was the culmination of at least three months’ work. All the stories we read in front of the audience had been through several drafts, and not all of them were the stories we started out with – I had written another beforehand, someone else was on their third I think.

We read our stories to each other at a dozen or so meetings, suggested improvements or reassured each other as the self-doubt set in. We laughed a lot, despaired occasionally, and spent a fair amount of time in the pub (we did set out for an evening picnic by the river some time in the summer, but it turned chilly that teatime and we ended up in a pub a stone’s throw from the river, complete with a variety of camping stools and blankets). Yesterday the nerves set in, some suffering far more than others (with a certain amount of gin and red wine being consumed in the hour or two before curtain-up. Not by me, I might add), but for me at least, the excitement as we sat on a line of wooden chairs in the wings and glimpsed the audience filing into the auditorium through a gap in the curtains, washed everything else away.

From where I sat I couldn’t see the film properly, but I listened to each story as though I was in the audience, enjoying the performance, being caught up by the characters and noticing where yet another change had been made since I last heard it. When I stepped out onto the stage and adjusted the microphone (being probably six inches taller than the person before me), I realised to my horror that I couldn’t see the audience at all, just blackness with a dazzling spotlight shining forth. All that looking up and making eye contact I’d been practising at home, wasted! I tried it anyway, guessing at where OneMonkey was and aiming my gaze there from time to time (I missed, apparently, and was looking intently at the side aisle) as well as peering into the gloom here and there. It was a surreal experience (we were in a studio theatre last year, sitting among the audience ourselves until we went to the front to read) and I did have a dizzying moment of belief that I’d somehow managed to go through the wrong curtain or point in the wrong direction, and wasn’t standing in front of 80-odd people at all.

Afterwards in the foyer, people I didn’t know came up and said nice things (some of them were connected to other members of Ilkley Writers but some seemed unknown). OneMonkey and Mark the artist exuded enough pride to light up the town, and I was half a grin away from dancing up the hill singing I Feel Pretty from West Side Story (thankfully, I didn’t, but I do have a character who does in one of the stories in my SF collection Cracks in the Foundations, which you can download free here. Seamless plug).

The Ilkley Writers literary festival appearance is over for this season, but I’ve got another crack at it, at the Open Mic night on Sunday October 18th. I’ll let you know how that one goes.