Monthly Archives: June 2015

THE BEES by Laline Paull

the bees by laline paull

This book is unlike anything I have read before and defies all the terms I normally use to categorise books on this blog. I’ve classed it as thriller and factual but that really doesn’t do it justice. Paull has built a moving, and at the same time terrifying, story around life in a bee hive. There’s some elements that feel like a children’s story book, such as the Patisserie & Pollen area of the hive where the bees’ bread is made, and others that are distinctly adult, such as the mass blood lust which disposes of drones who have outlived their usefulness. Every kin in the hive has its place, from the high priestess Sage to the lowly Flora, and each bee is entranced by their daily diet of propaganda – Accept, Obey and Serve. But at the centre of this story is a bee who is gifted beyond what’s usual in her kin: Flora 717, strong, good at foraging and soon adept at keeping secrets from her superiors.

The hive faces numerous challenges – including an attack by wasps, a particularly harsh winter, disease and the loss of their Queen – and this keeps the narrative moving. But really this book is a homage to the incredible way in which a hive operates, albeit one that reflects the brutal realities of an uncompromising totalitarian society. The fertility police who patrol the hive are truly frightening, as is the way in which the Queen’s entourage manipulate and control the other bees.

From the way that the bees dance out directions to the sweetest nectar, to their regular Devotions to the Queen; from how they enter into a trance over the winter, to how they mummify hive invaders they’ve stung to death in propolis with remarkable disinfectant powers; from how they use scent to communicate, to the joy the forager bees experience as they hunt for flowers; THE BEES is a window not just into the hive but into every aspect of the way in which it survives. Purists might question the liberal use of personification upon which the story rests, but I was perfectly happy to go along with it, and was rewarded with a truly astonishing and original novel.


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perfume - the story of a murdered by patrick suskind

Jean- Baptiste Grenouille is born into abject poverty on a rubbish tip. So begins a life of rejection and mistreatment, made bearable only by a unique gift: a most advanced and sensitive sense of smell. As a child Grenouille roams the nightime streets of 18th century Paris collecting scents to store away in his memory – everything from the smell of the beetles that live in decaying leaf mould, to the scent of the distant sea, carried into the city on the gentlest of breezes. It’s a gift that comes with a price. Grenouille himself has no scent, a fate which makes those around him uneasy and plays no small part in him growing up friendless, unloved and either ignored or treated with suspicion.

As he enters adulthood, Grenouille’s talent sees him grow arrogant and, in turn, full of loathing for his fellow human beings. One evening his nose draws him to the home of a young woman and, driven by desire to posses her intoxicating scent, murders her in an instant. The moment is a turning point – Grenouille becomes increasingly obsessed by collecting and making scents, working first as a perfumer and then leaving Paris for the fabled town of Grasse, in search of new skills that will allow him to better distill and create the scents of which he dreams.

Grasse is home to another woman whose scent Grenouille desires but this time he is more skilled, more determined and more cunning. He plans to capture it for eternity, so he can enjoy whenever he wants, and to set it off, as one would a fine diamond, in setting of other gems. The resulting killing spree puts every young woman in town in mortal danger. Now an expert at observing the impact different scents have on others, Grenouille uses his skills to create scents that he wears himself, and which in turn allow him to exercise control or disappear whenever the mood – or his plans – require. As the story plays out, and he comes closer and closer to what his heart desires, Grenouille’s misanthropy reaches fever pitch too – will fulfilling his dreams make him happy or will happiness always elude him?

Suskind is a very clever writer and the idea behind PERFUME is executed with style and incredible attention to detail. I was yearning to smell what Grenouille was smelling and utterly captivated by the descriptions of scent that give this book a force and vibrancy that’s impossible to ignore. Grenouille himself is a horribly fascinating protagnist, repulsive and attractive all at once, as well rounded as the scent of the ripest Parisian he sniffs.  Wickedness and depravity personified, he’s gratuitously selfish and yet is prevented from descending into a cartoon villain thanks to Suskin’s deft hand.


The only bit of the book I didn’t really enjoy is an interlude when Grenouille is travelling between Paris and Grasse and spends a prolonged period of time living as a hermit in a cave, sustained mainly by the smells of nature that surround him and hallucinatory dreams in which he is the supreme ruler of his own kingdom. As an escape from the human being he detests, it’s perfect, and as a literary technique it allows Suskind to really develop Grenouille into the man who can murder time and again in cold blood. However, I found that it all dragged on a bit too long and was a distraction from the action and ingenuity that utterly absorbed me for the rest of the novel.

Otherwise, there are many remarkable things to recommend about this book. As a study of death and decay, of twisted love and desire, it’s dark, dangerous and as all consuming as the addictive scents Grenouille goes to such lengths to make his own.

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the lightening tree by emily woof

A passionate love story, a poetic homage to the spiritual experience and an exploration of the trauma of not feeling loved enough by your mother – at its best THE LIGHTENING TREE crackles with wit and beauty. At its worst, there’s a structure and pace that are brave (Woof hurtles through time and events with abandon,  then slows right down to focus in on very specific moments), but don’t always work, and too many short lived characters that add little to the story or to our understanding of the writer’s themes.

From the opening pages, this novel is a force of a nature, not unlike many of the women that populate its pages, from embittered Ganny Mary to dreamy Ursula, via Joyce, whose CND activism is a powerful distraction from being an assiduous parent or daughter. But at times that force wears itself out and we are left rather wanting, which is a shame because there’s much here to admire.

The best bits are when Ursula and her admirer Jerry are teenagers. Episodes involving perms, political awakening and head stands are related with tenderness coupled with a wicked sense of humour. Woof really seems to get her central characters at this point – they are alive, captivating and immensely likeable. Then Jerry wins a place at Oxford and Ursula heads to India for a year off, at which point, they veer off course in more ways than one. When the pair are re-united, too much has changed and the intensity that burned in them just sort of fizzles out.  The ensuing section of the book is similarly lacking in spark although things pick up again much later, when the couple are drawn together by Ganny Mary’s death and rekindle their relationship.

Woof is an actress, as well as a writer (she was in the Full Monty amongst other things),  and much of her writing is very visual. The opening scene of the book has crows pecking at a baby’s eyes, in an image straight out of the cinema. Similarly, the stretches when Ganny Mary, Ursula’s grandmother, is recalling her childhood working alongside her father in the family laundry, Woof conjures up vignettes that seems made for the screen. And when Ursula spends some time acting, there’s a genuinely interesting take on what it’s like too. What the novel also has in bucket loads is a strong sense of place, as something that defines you, is a backdrop as well as centre stage to life, and which never lets you escape. From the streets of Jesmond to the evocative terrain of Lancashire, by way of a hillside in India, both Jerry and Ursula’s stories are grounded in their locations.  All of which mean I can definitely see this book being dramatised at some point – and it would probably work rather well, if the pacing is sorted out by a good screenwriter.

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the rosie project by graeme simsion  the rosie effect by graeme simsion

THE ROSIE PROJECT has been languishing on my book shelves since last summer and I only picked it up on a whim. It took a while to put it down again and I got so hooked I bought the sequel! Essentially it’s the story of Don Tillman’s search for a suitable wife and then, when he finds her, what happens when a baby arrives on the scene. The whole thing is made special by the fact that Don is Aspergic, making him a slave to logic, routine and very thorough research. Kind of  THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME but with an adult protagonist, rather than a child.

There are many laugh out loud moments and plenty that make you want to cry too. Simsion’s portrait is affectionate and warm – we are not laughing at Don, simply at the circumstances he finds himself in. There’s also plenty of anecdotes and insight that highlight the unique perspective of someone with Asperger’s, often with results that pose interesting questions about how Don’s approach to life is commonly judged. We also see him evolve into someone who can begin to receive and give love, who can be flexible if the situation demands, and who can at least understand the concept of empathy, even if he cannot quite do it.

The Rosie of the titles is less roundly developed but, nonetheless, worthy of the role she plays. Despite failing to meet the vast majority of the criteria Don has meticulously identified as essential in his future wife, it’s no surprise to anyone but himself that the pair end up together  Simsion’s also created some other great characters who, like Don, learn valuable lessons from their shared experiences.  THE ROSE EFFECT wasn’t quite as successful for me as the first book – the concept wasn’t as fresh, and there’s a touch too much coincidence/unlikeliness driving the plot. But overall these are fun, easy to read books that lightly touch on some very profound themes.

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