November 24, 2015

You Never Can Tell With Bees (Review: The Bees by Lalline Paul)

24441639The Bees
Lalline Paul
Ecco, 2015

I have to make an admission before we get started: I’m pretty damn scared of bees. They don’t instill the same mind-numbing terror as wasps or my new Taiwanese nemesis the giant hornet. Still, it takes a lot for me to get through a book whose cover is swarming in aphids. I had to touch them!  From the outset The Bees was asking me to run away screaming and write a scathing review so that no-one else would have to suffer. Miraculously it’s had the opposite effect; I’m now somewhat neutral, leaning towards positive, in my attitude to bees and happy to recommend the book to all and sundry.

On the surface The Bees looks like it should belong in the children’s section. A humble bee named Flora 717 awakens within her hive and proceeds to join the work of her caste, namely cleaning, the lowest of all duties. All bees within her home are named for their birthline, from the Floras, through the humble Teasels guarding the young, to the eminent Sages who control the daily activities of the entire beetropolis.

Enforcing law and order are the bee police, sinister agents who patrol the hive in search of any transgressions. Order and conformity are of paramount importance. Any bee suffering the slightest deformity is executed and disposed of for fear of contaminating others. Any activity endangering the hive, even simply growing old, warrants death. The highest crime is daring to lay an egg. Only the queen may breed. No exceptions, no forgiveness. So when Flora begins to notice that she is somewhat different she lives in terror of discovery, struggling between her desire to keep her head down and the uncontrollable urge to explore her potential.

As you may guess, The Bees can be viewed as a fairly simple parable. It’s a tale which has been told countless times but for very good reason. Themes like the fight against conformity and the search for identity resonate with all of us, particularly those encountering them in their formative years. As such this is a book which will find a fond home in the heart of many an adolescent. It’s not just a YA work though, and the book contains enough complexity and depth to sway even an avowed melissophobe like myself.

Through excellent powers of description, Lalline Paul manages to create a bee hive which sucks us right down to their size. What feels alien at the start of the book soon becomes a living, breathing world, albeit a claustrophobic one. The release felt upon finally leaving the hive is exhilarating, just as the first encounter with the Myriad (those other insects with which the bees share their territory) is terrifying. Whether scurrying through the walls of her home or exploring the vast fields and orchards surrounding it, Flora’s experiences really come alive in the reader’s mind.

This same attention to details helps bring life and individuality to the members of the colony, a none-too-easy task given their reputation as identical clones with no sense of self. Rather than individual characters, Paul smartly focuses on bringing character to each caste as a whole. This is accomplished with particular flair in the case of the only males in the hive, the Drones. They are depicted as raunchy, dashing sky-pilots, ever in search of the princess with whom they will mate and start a colony of their own, regaling the humble sisters with tales of their aerobatic and sexual prowess. I have no idea of this was intended but I simply could not read Drone passages without thinking of Lord Flashheart in Blackadder Goes Forth. It’s uncanny, I half expected them to start saying “Woof!”

My only criticism of The Bees is that Lalline Paul injected (sorry) a little too much eco-preaching into the book. Actually in hindsight it was probably less than I thought but it smacked of the usual misinformed media/public hysteria which flies in the face of all evidence. Inconvenient truths like the fact that bee populations across the world have been increasing steadily all through this century, with the number of active hives rising around 12.5% since 2000, seems to pass a lot of people by. (Donning my flameproof suit right now)

That minor niggle aside, it’s a great book. It bounces between smothering paranoia within the hive to exhilarating flying adventures without and as a result never seems to flag. There’s always enough going on to keep you turning the page and the pay-off, while you can see it coming a mile off, is well worth the wait. This a perfect gift for the rebellious teenager in your life. Just make sure you steal it and read it once they’re finished.

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones.  The Bees is available now and would make an excellent Christmas gift to anyone who likes good books. Thank you to the publisher for providing us with a copy of this title to review.

October 28, 2015

On a Wing and a Prayer (Review: Winger by Andrew Smith)

Andrew Smith
Egmont, 2014

This review contains spoilers. Consider this fair warning, although we'll warn you again below, before things get REALLY spoiler-y. You may now proceed.

Ryan Dean West is 14 and, as such, Ryan Dean West has problems. Not exactly abject poverty, incurable disease, downtrodden by the powerful masses problems but problems none the less.  He is in love with his best friend Annie, he is spending this term bunking in the bad boys dorm and he is at least a year younger than his classmates, leading to the aforementioned Annie not exactly seeing him as hunk material.  Never mind the constant threat of physical harm by being the only player on the rugby team that's around half the body weight of the rest. When you live on the campus of an extremely affluent boarding school these are the types of problems that can play on your mind.

Our journey with Ryan Dean covers his life over a school year, the trials and tribulations, the loves and losses and the drama that, at 14, we can all remember being absolutely world-ending (for about 2 days), all peppered with quirky cartoon strips of our protagonists own making.  Or at least it should have been, that would have been nice.  But instead Smith felt it necessary to go SUPER HARDCORE SERIOUS in the last 20 pages, so much so that the ending genuinely feels like it is a different book involving different characters.  But not to the ending just yet.

Our erstwhile host Ryan Dean is a very average 14 year old boy - he is insecure, overwhelmed and feels that all the worlds ills will be righted if he has the opportunity to rub himself up against almost anything female.  Sadly though, Smith has written him very averagely.  I didn't find Ryan Dean particularly likeable or even interesting which led to me having huge problems getting hooked in to this book.  Not only Ryan Dean but the majority of the characters I felt were woefully underdeveloped.  Don't get me wrong, they were all fine and played their parts but there was just way too much tell and not enough show from the author - I didn't understand why most of the characters did what they did or behaved the way they did which, for a book which isn't particularly short, is a mean feat to achieve.  But, to be more positive, Smith's mile-a-minute narration is always fun and really aided with the pacing of the overall tale which was, at times, mildly all over the place.  Ryan Dean is witty and delivers a very believable teenage view of the world which I'm sure will transport a lot of the readers back to their own school days, be that a good or bad reminiscence!  


But really, this ending I just can't make peace with and I'm going to have to lay down some pretty heavy spoilers here but I feel it's important for me to vent.  There is an openly gay boy on Ryan Dean's rugby team who, early on in the book, gets some agro from a group of local kids at an away rugby game.  Then, in the last twenty or so pages of the book, this boy goes missing from a party and is found tied to a tree, beaten to death, just for being gay.  This is such a massive step-change from the rest of the book and it happens so close to the end that there is no satisfactory response from any of the characters.  We are basically told that Ryan Dean was sad and then he got over it.

For me, it seemed a little too much like Smith was set on delivering a strong morality message to end Ryan Dean's story and tried to work back, creating a story around this.  Even the language in the last chapter does not sound like the Ryan Dean that the reader has spent the last few hundred pages getting to know.

Whether I was just too in love with Grasshopper Jungle to ever share my heart with another of Smith's novels is very much a possibility but I can't help leaving Winger feeling just a little bit let down.  What started out as a relatively light-hearted coming-of-age meander waded in with the hard-hitting moral stuff right at the end and it just didn't work for me.  In my mind it created a clunky plot, that was pretty light for much of the book, and an overall tale that doesn't seem to quite know what it wants to be.  Sadly, not nearly as clever or as organic-feeling as some of Smith's other work.    

This review was brought to you by Polka-Dot Steph who Splendibird hasn't seen for FAR TOO LONG. Isn't that sad? Yes, yes it is. Winger (and it's sequel Stand-Off) are now available in all places that sell good books. As are Andrew Smith's other books, which we think you should ALL read. Thank you to Egmont for sending us this title to review.



October 26, 2015

This is Halloween! Some Terrible Treats for the Weekend...

I love Halloween, I always have.  I think anybody who is a reader, or who spends a lot of time on their imagination can't help but be entranced by an evening so driven by stories.  Even as a very young child, I liked the sharp thrill of fear, found between safe pages and each year, I ferret out my favourite scary stories to read and re-read in front of the fire, surrounded by the deep gloom of October evenings.

This year, we were lucky enough to receive not only new editions of two all time favourites, but also a rather special book that offer both a Halloween challenge and a lot of fearsome fun.

Firstly, Alma Books were kind enough to send us two of their Young Adult Classic series:

I read both of these books as a teenager and they have remained close to my fearful heart.  I was actually rather obsessed with Hounds of Doom as a child.I was convinced that a werewolf regularly stalked the field behind our house. Really. So of course, I read The Hound of the Baskervilles. It terrified and thrilled me in equal measure, feeding both my desire to see an aforementioned Hound of Doom get his just deserts and my innate love of a good mystery.  The story did both and continues to do so. It is a tale that stands up well to repeated re-reads and sends a shiver down the spine every time.

Dracula is, while similarly Gothic in tone, an altogether different kettle of fish.  It has the most tremendous sense of forboding from the very first page and Stoker maintains an atmosphere of malingering, yet highly seductive, murk to the last. The story is frightening, the setting ominous and the fate of all those drawn towards the titular Count highly uncertain yet Dracula sits, like a spider in the heart of his web, horribly and terribly attractive.  That, of course, is where the true horror of the story lies.  For those who have experienced vampires only through Buffy and the CW network, this is the genesis of all those characters you hate to love.

These new editions from Alma  not only have fantastic new covers courtesy of illustrator, David Mackintosh, but also have great sections at the end of each story exploring the authors and books that might be excellent next reads for those who want just a little bit more darkness in their light.  All in all, both the stories and Alma's new take on packaging them are highly recommended.

For those of you who want a little more fun on fright night, Dandy's Horrorgami is the book for you!

This is an excellent introduction to the art of paper-cutting via the medium of, well, every horror story you care to think of. The book is beautifully produced and comes with cut-out-and-make sections to help you on your way to some truly terrifying spooky scenes. I have yet to take scalpel in hand and try these out but I certainly will be this weekend and have already invested in a few copies to hand out at Christmas.  As you can see below, they should keep even the most avid horror afficianado pretty happy.  If not covered in band-aids (that may just be me):

I am sure that mine will look EXACTLY like those when I am done hacking away at the pages.  Possibly.
Thanks very much to the folk at Midas PR for sending this unusual and challenging project our way!

Now that we've hopefully got your collective Halloween read on, don't forget to take part in the Neil Gaiman created All Hallow's Read.  Any of these books would be fantastic to pass on to the nearest fan of spooky stories.

Happy Reading and Happy Halloween - don't have nightmares....