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.

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 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: Stuart Maconie

Stuart Maconie – writer, broadcaster, unashamed wearer of red trousers – provided well over the allotted hour of insight and mirth this evening in Ilkley’s King’s Hall. The event was billed as relating to his most recent book, The Pie at Night (which even he keeps calling Pies and Prejudice by accident) but although he did keep referring back to it in passing, and read a short extract eventually, the bulk of his readings were from earlier works and the bulk of the delivery was comedic and anecdotal.

Particular stand-outs for me both revolved around his mum. The wonderful tale of him interviewing her some years ago about her taking the two-year-old Stuart to see The Beatles in 1964: she can’t remember what the band played or who supported them, but can recount at length the weather, the neighbours in the queue, the refreshments, and what the family had for tea later.

The other one was a trait which all northern women (used to) have, of relational story-telling such as ‘you know, Gladys. Worked with your mum at the chip shop before she married that feller from Rotherham with the false leg. He had a caravan two berths down from your Norman at Brid that summer, when Flo and Arthur won the teddy bear on the front’. It wasn’t his mum’s long-winded argument about Blackpool so much as the way Stuart Maconie linked it with Icelandic sagas, and northerners being the true inheritors of our forefathers’ means of expression (instead of Agbard son of Gimli who slew the troll, we have Ethel wife of Peter who drove the bus. He put it better than I have though…). I like that idea, I shall return to it at some point, I’m sure.

Interestingly, the hall was only about two-thirds full, and I do wonder if it’s the prices that are the problem. There was a list of ‘over 100 events with tickets remaining’, including some big names. I bought a whole raft of tickets weeks ago, and I got a shock pulling these ones out of the pack tonight and realising in some moment of madness in late summer I’d handed over nearly thirty quid for OneMonkey and I to sit and listen to an admittedly amusing raconteur for an hour. There are so many events packed into such a short time at the Ilkley litfest, and so much I’m interested in every year, but only so much I can afford to go to (and don’t expect me to have any left over to buy the books).

As for Stuart Maconie’s latest book, this evening’s left me none the wiser as to whether I should read it. It has made me want to go borrow Pies and Prejudice from Big Brother though.

Ilkley Literature Festival review: Writing and Reading in the Digital Age

More from New Writing North this evening, as Claire Malcolm chaired a discussion on connecting readers and writers in the era of the internet. Book blogger/podcaster Simon Savidge, author and book vlogger Jen Campbell, and Rachael Kerr from Unbound (crowdfunded publisher) shared their views on reviewing books, the dominance (and distance from modern reality) of mainstream publishers and national newspapers, and lots more besides.

An important point made about blogs/vlogs (incidentally, vlogs and vlogging are hard to say and ugly to write – is there another term out there?) is that the reader/viewer can get to know the personality and taste of the writer/presenter in a way that’s not possible with sparse (often faceless) book reviewing in print media, and in this way come to know which recommendations to trust. This can help people read out of their comfort zone, which is probably a good thing.

Despite dire predictions, people are continuing to read print books, children are reading more than they have in years, and book sales are up lately (though no-one on the panel mentioned that that might just be a result of closing libraries…). Jen offered the interesting snippet (from her new book on the history of bookshops) that a late medieval bookseller in Florence declared the advent of printed books ‘the death of the book’ and shut up shop, so basically there have been dire predictions for about as long as there have been books.

The other part of the discussion (though really everything melded together quite well) was about crowdfunding, and that direct link between author and readership. On the face of it (having not had time to look into it at all) Unbound sounds like a great idea: authors submit a manuscript or book project idea, if Unbound decide they like it they set a funding target (the cost to print X number of copies, or for instance the cost to print plus the cost of giving the author a couple of months off the day-job so they can finish the thing) and interested readers pledge money. Anything made over the funding target gets split fifty-fifty between Unbound and the author, and they’ve already had some critical and commercial successes like The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth.

I came away with many things to think about, some of which I may write about here soon. Or perhaps I should branch out into podcasting. Don’t expect me to make videos anytime soon, however.

Sally Heathcote Suffragette

Bryan and Mary Talbot were at last year’s Ilkley literature festival talking about this graphic novel, and since then it’s been part of the Read Regional promotion in northern libraries. Particularly with the forthcoming suffragette film focusing people’s attention on the subject at the moment, Sally Heathcote Suffragette deserves a wide audience.

Cover of Sally Heathcote Suffragette by Mary Talbot, Bryan Talbot, Kate Charlesworth

As you’d expect given who produced it (Mary Talbot, Bryan Talbot, and Kate Charlesworth) it’s a high quality affair, with beautifully detailed artwork. I’m almost sorry that I borrowed it from the library, as there are some pages in particular I’d love to keep. The colours are generally muted, except for the purple and green of the WSPU, and the flaming ginger of Sally’s hair, that allows her to be spotted easily in a crowd. The background is full of authentic reproductions of railway posters, advertising boards and the like, and the era is conjured magnificently.

I found myself thinking early on ‘That Mrs Pankhurst is a right piece of work’ and I can’t say my opinion changed. The character of Sally is a good one to see the development of the story through, but I didn’t have much sympathy for Sally myself, as she gets involved in violence and destruction, and goes along with the absolute outrage at the idea of working men possibly getting the vote (that’s the trouble with groups that want the advancement of one section of society, rather than improvements for all). If you have a Northern and/or working class chip prepare to get it exercised, with Londoners patronising Sally for being from Lancashire and middle class women patronising her for being poor. Also, whether this was the intention or not, as it starts and ends with Sally as an old lady it did make me stop and think about the invisibility of the old, who knows what extraordinary things they did before they were so frail.

There are notes and a timeline at the back to really propel you into the history but I learnt a lot from the story itself (Sylvia Pankhurst’s split from her mother and Christabel for instance). Coincidentally, I read it in the week of the centenary of Keir Hardie’s death (thus getting a reminder of his involvement with trying to expand the franchise), and immediately before I started on Selina Todd’s The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class 1910-2010 (which covers both female and working male suffrage in the first chapter) so it all slotted into place nicely.