We hope that some of you have managed to read our first Shiny Book Club choice – Laline Paull’s The Bees. We left you with some questions below to think about to get the discussion started, but do link in with your own reviews and tell us your opinions about this novel:
If you didn’t have time to read the book, you can read our friend Simon Savidge’s review of the book, which got us all excited about it. Bookgazing has also reviewed it for us here in our Fiction section.
And these are our questions to think about:
1. The Bees has attracted praise from many established authors and publications. What makes The Bees such a special debut & what did you enjoy the most about this novel?
2. If you had to classify The Bees, which genre would you say it belongs to, or do you think it borrows elements from multiple genres?
3. Flora has been described as an ‘action hero’. What heroic attributes does Flora have?
4. What, if any, comment do you think The Bees makes about the human world? Does the society of its anthropomorphic characters always directly resemble human society or do the two diverge?
5. Flora lives to see and remember things her other sisters miss because of their short life spans. Do you think Laline Paull makes it easy for the reader to suspend disbelief in order to follow Flora’s story?
We’re looking forward to your comments…
Comments for this post are closed. However here is a summary of the discussion before and after reading the book:
Comments on the announcement:
Caroline: I like your first book club choice and hope I’ll get the time to join.
Annabel: We’d love as many people as possible to join in our discussion – whether they get on with the book … or not! The Bees is out in paperback so should be easy to get hold of.
Grad: Love the idea of the book club. This book won’t be available here (in the U.S.) until mid-May (according to Barnes & Noble), so I may not be able to participate in this first go-round. Maybe the next selection will be more readily available. In any event, I am on the hold list for The Bees at the library as it is on pre-order. I’ll eventually get to read it.
Annabel: Maybe next time we’ll pick a reprint – so more can join in with older editions.
Julé: The HC and e-book were published in the US last year by Ecco. Maybe what the BN system is showing is the softcover publication date? And the book does look really interesting!
Grad: Thanks, Julie! I’ll have to follow up and see if I can get it on ebook.
Elle: Woohoo–I’m definitely in for this one! I have far too much to say about The Bees, most of it probably contentious…
Adele: I’ll be fascinated to read what everyone says!
LALINE PAULL: Thank you very much for choosing The Bees (following #TheSavidgeEffect). I hope you have a lively discussion and I’ll try to stop by too.
Annabel: Congratulations to Laline for being shortlisted for the Baileys Prize! Wonderful news.
Julé: The oddest thing – I finished reading ‘The Bees’ last night and woke up this morning to the news that a semi-truck carrying hives with 40 million honeybees had blown a tire and overturned on a freeway near here scattering hives and bees. All I can think of after reading Laline’s book is how frightened they must be as people are trying to round them up and subdue them. Poor things!
Bookertalk: When is the next book club read? Have you chosen the book yet?
Annabel: The next book club read will be announced in the next full issue at the beginning of July, and discussed in mid-August.
Comments discussing the book:
Victoria: So, what did we think of the book? Having heard whispers here and there from some of the Shiny team over the past few months, it seems to have provoked a very wide range of opinions, with quite a few people finding it tough going.
The main thing I heard was that readers found it hard to get into. Was a colony of bees just a step too far for suspension of belief?
Annabel: It did take about 75 pages for me to get into, but once it clicked I romped through the novel. You have to accept that a degree of anthropomorphism is inevitable, but I think that the author got the balance between that and bee behaviours about right.
Jeanne: (What, if any, comment do you think The Bees makes about the human world? Does the society of its anthropomorphic characters always directly resemble human society or do the two diverge?)
I think the author does a good job of making bee society diverge from human. Any book about insect (or animal) society written by a human will have human elements, kind of like how in SF it’s hard to invent a really alien person from another planet–somehow we think they’ve always got to have mouths, or at least an orifice through which they speak and ingest food. One of the things I liked about the novel is that Flora always seemed a tiny bit bewildered about where she’s going next and why, because bees wouldn’t move around like she does.
I’m not at all sure the novel does make comments about human society. Sure, there are elements that remind me of YA (where do I belong in this society?) or SFF (am I chosen to enact the spider prophecy?) but that’s us reading human things into bee life.
I think my favorite part is how the foragers didn’t like to sleep in the winter. That’s probably just because I identify with the small segment of the human population who don’t like to nap.
Annabel: I agree – Flora’s bewilderment at getting dragged into things is a real driver at first isn’t it? There is a lesson for human society though in the book – not in the hive world, but in our own where we spray crops, concrete over fields and destroy habitats.
Harriet: I do think it is supposed to represent human society of a vey dystopian kind. I was reminded of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale at times. I did learn something about bees, but I wasn’t enthralled by the plot, which seemed rather predictable. I think in the end my problem is that I just don’t like anthropomorphism. I’d love to be more positive but plenty of other people will be, I’m sure!
Annabel: It struck me that the hive structure was very class-ridden and Big Brotherish. I enjoyed reading the bees’ version of this trope though.
Spade & Dagger: Enjoyed the story line of this book with its’ fairly subtle ecological message. Also agree that it had a YA feel about it with the themes of breaking out and being independent. The only reservation was slight confusion as to how much was actual bee behaviour. I realise it wasn’t meant to be a natural history account, but eventually I had to treat anything that I didn’t already know about bees as fiction, as I had no way of discriminating the new real bee facts from fiction.
Annabel: I’m determined to read Dave Goulson’s book about bumblebees now. Much of the bee behaviours felt pretty real to me though, so I could stop worrying about that.
Spade & Dagger: I think there were some very convincing, but fictionalised aspects of bee behaviour (felt compelled to look some up!) – but ultimately it was a compelling read and I cared what happened to lots of the characters, and that counts for a lot in a good read.
Julé: It also took me some pages before getting caught up in the book, but when it happened I was thoroughly immersed. Pretty impressive to make such a foreign world and characters so sympathetic. During the first part of the book the descriptions of the hive seemed quite familiar from reading histories of the USSR; then it diverged and became more its own world (bee-like?). Though Flora was a wonderful character, later she became a bit too superhero and less believable for me.
Annabel: I agree about the totalitarian state at the start – on my blog review I likened the Sage to the Praesidium. Flora really was a queen bee manque wasn’t she, being bigger and stronger. I almost wondered if she’d lead all the lower workers off in a swarm to start a new colony at one stage – but she was a great character.
Julé: Yes, exactly! Flora is a terrific character; I especially liked how she comes from a lowly caste so as she learns the ends and outs of the hive so do we. Particularly enjoyed your take in your post on the drones…
Annabel: The drones are very like Lord Flasheart (Blackadder) aren’t they!
Julé: Make that ‘ins and outs’…
Lory: My review is posting on my blog tomorrow! I was a bit hesitant to start this book with all the dystopian comparisons, but I loved it once I did. I didn’t find it a comment on human society in the same way as some of those novels (e.g. The Handmaid’s Tale), but rather an attempt to get into a completely different way of experiencing the world using human terms and characteristics as metaphors. Sometimes that bothered me, perhaps illogically; when the bees were referred to as pilots or priestesses I went along with it, while references to physical objects like doorknobs and tables were jarring. I would have appreciated a few notes about the bee biology to help sort out facts from fiction. But as long as I didn’t take it as a textbook I really enjoyed the imaginative point of view.
Simon: What a fascinating discussion this is proving!
Linda: We’re reading this for our secondary school staff book group and will be discussing it after school on the day the Bailey’s winner is announced! I’m half way through so will reserve judgement until finished but agree it has a YA feel with its feisty, misfit, independent, tfemale lead. At least no sign of dreary romance triangle/fatal illness/suicide yet!
I found it very easy to get into but now flagging a bit, however enjoying the hilariously macho drones.
If this discussion is still open at the beginning of June I’ll come back with our group verdict.
report our group verdict
Annabel: My bookgroup is reading it this month as well! I think it will provoke some great discussions… Please do remember to come back and let us know.
Linda: I’m laughing at myself for not noticing the references to doorknobs and tables.
Annabel: Me too – totally missed them!
Lory: I may have misremembered the doorknobs, though there certainly were doors. Tables too. However, I read an ARC — did they get edited out?
Louise: Here’s my review on my blog: https://bookaweekblog.wordpress.com/2015/05/08/the-bees-laline-paul/
With reference to your specific questions:
1. Its great for a debut as its doing something quite topical as there has been a lot about how bee populations are declining and the devastating impact that will have on the environment. I liked the drones best- reminded me of Rik Mayall in Blackadder!
2. YA/ Sci Fi… I think this was its downfall for me. The writing style was too YA for me to really enjoy it.
3. Determination, ambition
4. I think the characters were a confusing mix of too human-like and too “alien” and this spoilt things a little for me.
5. I guess so, I can’t really think of what else to say!
Annabel: Definitely Lord Flasheart!
Annabel: I’m interested in the number of people who see the Bees as YA genre-wise… I saw it as primarily a political thriller with Flora as the fish out of water. I accept that she’s a young heroine at the start – but it does follow her whole life, so the usual YA trope of having a young protagonist isn’t entirely followed through. Anyone care to take me up on this aspect?
Louise: I just thought it was the way it was written rather than having a young central character. It seemed quite “plain” and “teenage speak” to me I suppose.
Jodie: I didn’t read The Bees as YA but I did think it followed a story structure that’s v popular in YA at the mo (exceptional female character battles older more powerful female adversary in a strictly regulated dystopian world). It’s been a while since I’ve read a new adult novel interested in looking at that kind of story (Handmaid’s Tale is probably the most recent I can think of and even then the protagonist is fighting against men mostly). It felt like it had a lot of similarities to the film version of Divergent. But like Annabel I don’t think I would class it as YA.
Elle: I’m late to the party on this because I’ve been too cowardly to speak up, but man, The Bees did not do it for me at all. More specifics can be found here (https://ellethinks.wordpress.com/2015/03/20/the-bees-by-laline-paull/) but I think my main problems were a) the plotting seemed disordered, as though Paull knew her beginning and her end and wasn’t quite sure how to navigate the middle, and b) the writing not only didn’t stand out, it struck me as actively clumsy. I don’t think my review has any quotes (one of the few that doesn’t!), but much of Paull’s sentence structure was a bit…I don’t know…plodding. It really disappointed me, since the idea is clever, and to see it on the Baileys’ shortlist when books like The Wolf Border didn’t even get a look in… Gosh.
Annabel: Thanks for joining in Elle. Maybe the high-concept outweighed the writing in the Baileys judges’ thoughts?… The middle was a bit flat, I agree, due to the author wanting to show us Flora’s journey through the entire hive and its life-cycle perhaps which lacks the drama of the beginning and end.
Rob: I tried hard to like this, but found it difficult to get into. It is certainly ingenious, particularly the way the bees’ use of their sense of smell is depicted. But that very realistic element seemed all wrong in a world of what often seemed like Elizabethan excess. I agree with those who caught a whiff of Lord Flasheart. Why the mismatch between the emphasis on the physical characteristics of the bees and the setting that evoked some vast Tudor mansion troubled me, I don’t know. I have no problem with the anthropomorphism of, say, Wind in the Willows. I found myself skipping pages, and predicting — quite accurately — what disaster would next befall Flora. The totalitarian state symbolism seemed a bit heavy handed. And Orwell does it better.
Shoshi: Sorry for being another late joiner – I’ve really enjoyed reading what you’ve been saying about the book and it makes me feel better about liking, but not loving, it.
I actually really enjoyed the start of the book, when it was more about explaining the world of the hive and its combination of cruelty with nurturing and overpowering love. I think I’d rather it had been a short story because the bits where Flora gets to use all of her special powers and inherent kindness (YA style) meant the overall story arc felt less original than the novel’s premise suggested.
I also think I would have liked the 1984 regime moments easier to take if they’d been shorter. Unlike Harriet, I don’t have a problem with anthropomorphism in books, but I found it more of an issue here because I don’t think a hive is dystopian for bees, I think it’s how they live. I feel pedantic saying it, but it really started to frustrate me because the whole ‘fight the system’ message just didn’t seem to work with this specific animal world.