“Brand New Friend” by Mike Gayle (2005)

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“‘Do you want to hear an interesting fact?’ said Jo.”

When in doubt, go back to Mike Gayle. He’s one of the most comforting writers I know, and this is one of the first books I remember reading in adulthood. I think I’d put off reading it again for so long because it was what got me into his work in the first place, and I was worried it wouldn’t have lived up to my memory. Unfortunately, I will be laying the spoilers on pretty thick later on, so consider that your final warning.

With their relationship at a crossroads, Rob and Ashley have to make a decision about where they’re going to live, as the long-distance nature of their relationship is taking its toll. Rob decides to move to Manchester, leaving behind his London life and, more importantly, all of his friends. Six months later, however, he has yet to make a single new friend, which is putting a whole different kind of strain on the relationship.

Desperate to help, Ashley puts an advert for friendship in the local paper, which Rob dismisses out of hand, before agreeing to try these “bloke dates”. At a party, however, he meets Jo, with whom he has an instant bond. They like the same things, chat easily, and laugh at the same jokes, but Rob worries that Ashley wouldn’t be too happy with his new best friend being a woman. Eager to keep both women happy, Rob deals in a little subterfuge, until the two meet and everything comes into the open, leading to complications.

First up, it’s as well written and tight as any of Gayle’s other early, more romantic-comedy based, novels. I like Rob (although I don’t know if we have enough in common to have been friends) and Jo is an interesting character. The sad thing is that I’m not sure this book has aged particularly well. The world has shifted a lot in the last sixteen years, and there is a lot of flippancy from the male characters about how meeting another man you don’t know for a drink is a bit “gay”. I don’t think any of the characters are explicitly homophobic, but the casualness with which it’s all thrown about is a bit jarring at times.

Really, it’s a story about how hard it is to make friends in your thirties, which is something that is universally relatable, especially for men, I think, although I appreciate that is a broad generalisation and things are definitely getting better. Like When Harry Met Sally, it centres around a mixed gender friendship and the supposed complications that that entails, but I think truly that this is a trope that has long been worn out. I have many female friends, most of my friends are in fact, and the debate on whether men and women can be friends without fancying each other baffles me, because of course they can. Some of the characters here are aghast at the idea of being friends with someone of the opposite gender. I sort of pity them, as I pity anyone who limits their circle like that. It does, however, also deal with the hypocrisy of Ashley having a close male friend called Neil, which Rob never questions.

In Ashley’s defence, however, she doesn’t have a problem with Rob having a female friend – her issue lies in the way he doesn’t tell her. It’s one of those stories that wouldn’t have happened if two people had just had a conversation early on. Here come the spoilers though. I couldn’t remember throughout whether Rob and Jo would end up together, and I’m delighted to say that at no point do he or Ashley appear to be even remotely close to breaking up. They are loyal to one another, and you know that Rob will never cheat, even when it looks like he might. Jo, however, later admits feelings for Rob, which clouds their relationship, but even these can be explained by her being in a fragile position having recently broken up with her boyfriend, and perhaps she’s just a bit broken and mistaking friendship for something else. As she says, why is there only one word for love when there are so many different kinds on offer? Having just the one can confuse things because it means so many things. I love my girlfriend, my friends and Agatha Christie, but all in very different ways. There should be more words.

Despite my griping, I still love Gayle, and I always think there should be more stories that focus on friendship over romantic relationships, but maybe it’s time to finally put away the issues and debates that seem to surround men and women being friends.

Looking for something to do while you wait for the world to return to normal? My new book, Questioning Your Sanity, is a quiz book containing over seven hundred questions and extra trivia on every page. It’s ideal for anyone missing their regular pub quiz, or anyone who wants to brush up on their general knowledge and check their mind hasn’t entirely gone during lockdown. It would also make a great gift for the trivia junkie in your life. Available in paperback or for Kindle now.

“Hazards Of Time Travel” by Joyce Carol Oates (2018)

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“They would not have come for me, naively I drew their attention to me.”

I really need to stop reading dystopian futures in the current climate. Never mind, here we go again.

Adriane Strohl hsa been chosen as the valedictorian at her high school in the North American States. Unfortunately for her, she decides this is an opportunity to ask a few questions about the world she’s grown up in; a world of strict laws, conformity and constant surveillance. Her punishment is to be sent to Zone Nine, otherwise known as Wisconsin, 1959.

Now eighty years in the past and with no way of communicating with her family who haven’t even been born yet, she must accept that the next four years are going to be very lonely, as she can’t reveal to anyone who she is or where she’s from. But then she meets her psychology professor, Ira Wolfman, and finds in him a kind of soulmate. At first she just suspects that he’s another person exiled from his home time, but as they grow closer, it seems that both of them are willing to risk everything for one shot at happiness.

Unfortunately, fresh on the heels of The Waiter, this is another book is an unsatisfactory ending. It feels that Oates didn’t know where to go, had written herself into a corner, and left it all hanging rather than explaining anything or giving us any kind of closure. I guess the aim of the story is that we are to make up our own minds about what happened, and sometimes that’s great, but here it just felt really lazy. Towards the end (and these are spoilers), we see evidence that things are as Adriane has been told, but also understand that it may only have been a partial truth. The ambiguity is clearly supposed to be part of it, but I found it weak given the story opened in a world where things are rigid and there’s no ambiguity allowed.

Otherwise, there are some interesting aspects to the story. There’s a lot of exposition in the early chapters as Oates builds up the world of NAS – a version of the US that came into being after 9/11 and has since absorbed Canada and Mexico into its borders – and it’s an unpleasant one, with more than a touch of Orwell about it. Her take on 1959 is interesting too, with students concerned about a nuclear war they think is due any minute – but we and Adriane know never happened – and a general sense of unease as you get the feeling they’re being watched but in a time of “primitive” technology, you can’t quite work out how.

An interesting tale, but somewhat disjointed.

Looking for something to do while you wait for the world to return to normal? My new book, Questioning Your Sanity, is a quiz book containing over seven hundred questions and extra trivia on every page. It’s ideal for anyone missing their regular pub quiz, or anyone who wants to brush up on their general knowledge and check their mind hasn’t entirely gone during lockdown. It would also make a great gift for the trivia junkie in your life. Available in paperback or for Kindle now.

“The Waiter” by Matias Faldbakken (2017)

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“The Hills dates from a time when pigs were pigs and swine were swine.”

Two books in a month about working in hospitality seems a bit much, especially given that’s what I do with my day anyway. But here we are. This’ll do for now.

The Hills is a Oslo-based restaurant steeped in tradition. Every day, the same pianist plays the same songs, the same customers come and order the same wine, and the same waiter patrols the tables, keeping everything in check. He prides himself on his customer service, ensuring that every guest is kept happy and he remains unobtrusive in the background. In doing so, he is a master of people watching and observes their dramas with a sharp wit.

Then one day a regular known as The Pig is met by a new woman – young, charming, mysterious – and the waiter is thrown. Who is she? What does she want? Why does she not seem to fit into the place? And how does she know everyone else? Determined to stay on the side lines, but becoming increasingly discombobulated by her recurring presence, the waiter’s perfectly balanced life looks set to collapse.

Comparisons to The Remains of the Day are fair, but this is a far more comedic look at what happens when someone devotes their life to service. The waiter is so determined to be on the outside that all we hear about is his work life and the people he encounters there. Only a handful have names – not even he has one. About the only thing we learn of him is that he’s worked at The Hills for nineteen years. We otherwise don’t know his age, relationship status, or anything about what he does when he’s not at work, except for a brief glimpse towards how he dresses and a tendency to get hooked online, scrolling through pages of news, videos and memes. He is something of an empty vessel. He sees this as a great attribute of a waiter: he’s not there to make a scene, he’s just part of one.

While any plot is minimal, ideally a book should have at least some – although sometimes a very minimal plot can work well. Here, it is mostly a set of vignettes about what the waiter witnesses and what he thinks about his customers, but the ending is somewhat unsatisfactory and rather abrupt, as if Faldbakken simply got bored. It’s a shame because the book is otherwise witty, clever and intriguing. I just wish it had wrapped up better.

A charming, funny book for anyone who has worked in customer service or just loves people watching.

Looking for something to do while you wait for the world to return to normal? My new book, Questioning Your Sanity, is a quiz book containing over seven hundred questions and extra trivia on every page. It’s ideal for anyone missing their regular pub quiz, or anyone who wants to brush up on their general knowledge and check their mind hasn’t entirely gone during lockdown. It would also make a great gift for the trivia junkie in your life. Available in paperback or for Kindle now.

“Artemis” by Andy Weir (2017)

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“I bounded over the gray, dusty terrain toward the huge dome of Conrad Bubble.”

Sometimes this world seems a bit too small and we long for escape. Humanity has seemingly always been interested in exploring space, and science fiction has really helped us do that while we wait for technology to advance far enough to allow us to do it for real. In Artemis, we’re heading to the first permanent city on the moon.

Artemis was constructed as the moon’s first city. With a population of two thousand, and a steady stream of tourists, it has become the greatest holiday destination in the universe. Living there, however, is a different matter. The citizenry consists of the insanely wealthy and a sub-class of criminals, sent their do to the grunt work. Jazz Bashara is not one of the insanely wealthy.

Living in a poor area of the city and working as a porter, she subsidises her meagre income by smuggling contraband to those willing to pay. When she gets the chance to make a lot more money, however, she leaps at the chance. Unfortunately, she’s in way over her head and will have to use all her ingenuity to pull off the perfect crime. But the moon is a harsh mistress and in a small town where everyone knows everyone else, it’s not going to be easy.

One thing that was quite disappointing was that, while the lead character is a very strong woman, the other female characters are sidelined. Many are in positions of power, but don’t end up having anything to do in the final showdown. While there’s a good amount of racial diversity among the cast, with the journey into space having been a global venture led by a predominantly black country, the gender disparity was noticeable.

That said, the novel still stands up to scrutiny. As with The Martian, you get the feeling that Weir has done his research. For all I know he’s made it all up, but if so then it at least sounds genuine. From what I have read about him, however, it seems that it’s all very much based in reality. This is some of the hardest science fiction around. Jazz is not the most likeable character, but she’s a fun narrator, and the supporting characters are a mixed bag. I really liked her dad and the young Lene Landvik, but was less enamoured by figures such as Bob and Rudy, who are quite one-dimensional.

This all sounds more negative than it’s meant to. As science fiction novels go, it’s up there among the best, but I think it’s competing in my head against The Martian, and that was a very high bar. The world Weir creates is full and rich, and I think he’s genuinely one of the sharpest voices in science fiction at the moment.

A very intelligent and, in places, funny book about what living on the moon might actually be like, if we ever get around to it.

Looking for something to do while you wait for the world to return to normal? My new book, Questioning Your Sanity, is a quiz book containing over seven hundred questions and extra trivia on every page. It’s ideal for anyone missing their regular pub quiz, or anyone who wants to brush up on their general knowledge and check their mind hasn’t entirely gone during lockdown. It would also make a great gift for the trivia junkie in your life. Available in paperback or for Kindle now.

“Dumb Witness” by Agatha Christie (1987)

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“Miss Arundell died on May 1st.”

So much Agatha Christie, so little time. In Poirot’s sixteenth outing, we’re back in a big old house with a dead body to examine. The more things change, etc…

When Emily Arundell takes a fall one night, everyone is convinced that the blame lies with her dog, Bob, who must have left his ball at the top of the stairs. Emily, however, isn’t so sure when she realises that Bob was out all night. Becoming increasingly convinced that one of her family has attempted to kill her to get her money, on April 17th she writes to Hercule Poirot to seek his advice.

On June 28th, Poirot receives the letter – by which time Emily has been dead for two months. Intrigued by the summons of a deceased client, Poirot and Hastings head to Emily’s house and comes to learn that her will dictated that everything was to be left to her companion, Miss Lawson, with the rest of her family getting nothing at all. Poirot wants to know why the letter took so long to reach him, whether Emily’s death was as innocent as it first appears, and above all, who might have felt strongly enough to commit a murder?

Let’s get the grotty bit out of the way first. This is one of the books that has not aged especially well, with a few racist descriptions, passages and also a chapter title, although my girlfriend tells me that in the audiobook version she listened to, it has been excised and updated. There does remain, however, the apparent “scandal” of an Englishwoman marrying a Greek gentleman, which causes a stir among the Victorian-minded elderly women in the novel. Christie was a product of her time, unfortunately, so no getting away from that.

I think I’d forgotten how much of that is present here, because the rest of it is an utter joy. In many ways it’s a classic of the genre, with a big country house and a backstabbing family of suspects, but it also stands out because Poirot is working for a woman he’s never met and will never know if he solved the crime. As usual, justice is delivered in Poirot’s inimitable way, and he and Hastings are on particularly good form. As ever, the clues are there and, although I didn’t remember the solution to this one, I still solved it before Hastings did thanks to one clue I found really obvious but he apparently didn’t. There’s also the dumb witness of the title, Bob the terrier, who performs as his own character, with Hastings interpreting his glances and barks with good humour.

Christie remains at the peak of her craft, but war is coming and things are about to get a lot darker.

Looking for something to do while you wait for the world to return to normal? My new book, Questioning Your Sanity, is a quiz book containing over seven hundred questions and extra trivia on every page. It’s ideal for anyone missing their regular pub quiz, or anyone who wants to brush up on their general knowledge and check their mind hasn’t entirely gone during lockdown. It would also make a great gift for the trivia junkie in your life. Available in paperback or for Kindle now.

“Writers & Lovers” by Lily King (2020)

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“I have a pact with myself not to think about money in the morning.”

It’s a cliché for writers to write about writing. I think a lot of it comes from the (somewhat questionable and incredibly limiting) advice to “write what you know”. Still, since wanting to write a book is a fairly common dream, I suppose there’s a good deal of material to be had. Here is Lily King’s take.

Casey feels trapped. She’s been working on the same novel for six years, and works in a high-end restaurant as a waitress that takes up most of her free time. She lives in a converted shed, rented from a friend of her brother, and it’s only been a few weeks since her mother died. She is floating amid the chaos, not knowing where to go from here.

And then into her life walks Silas. He’s cool, handsome and interested. But on the morning of their first date, he calls to say he’s had to leave town. Instead, she becomes captivated by Oscar, a notable author with two young sons who comes into the restaurant and she already met at a book signing. As soon as she begins dating Oscar, however, Silas returns. Suddenly she is caught between two possible futures and must work out which direction she wants to take her life in from this point on.

As someone currently in quite a melancholic mood, I think a melancholic book was just the thing. Were I feeling more positive, I’m not sure it would’ve had hit the same way. Casey is a sympathetic character, stuck in a situation that she doesn’t want to be in, but there’s no denying that a lot of the reasons she’s there are because of her own decisions. She does not always choose well, and that seems to exacerbate her problems. I’m also a struggling writer working in a tireless customer service role, so I related to her strongly, although I at least don’t have the issue of trying to navigate finding a partner at the same time. I appreciate her loneliness though, and I love her relationship with Oscar’s kids, even if not with Oscar himself.

I did find, however, that the resolution came all too swiftly and somewhat conveniently. For all her complaining and moping, she inexplicably and very suddenly finds everything going right for her: she gets an agent, finds a new job, her health concerns vanish, and she settles for the more stable partner. While you wish her well, and are glad that she’s finding some stability, there’s definitely a sense that it won’t last. We just have to hope that she manages to make some better decisions this time. It’s also quite telling about the world that during an incident where both she and the (male) chef at her restaurant cause a scene, it is only she who gets fired. It’s entirely unfair.

A bittersweet and very well-written novel, with some truly beautiful lines among the occasionally patchy plot.

Looking for something to do while you wait for the world to return to normal? My new book, Questioning Your Sanity, is a quiz book containing over seven hundred questions and extra trivia on every page. It’s ideal for anyone missing their regular pub quiz, or anyone who wants to brush up on their general knowledge and check their mind hasn’t entirely gone during lockdown. It would also make a great gift for the trivia junkie in your life. Available in paperback or for Kindle now.

“Chocky” by John Wyndham (1968)

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“It was in the spring of the year that Matthew reached twelve that I first became aware of Chocky.”

When aliens come, I sense humanity won’t react well. Of course, we’d like to think we’ll all band together, but since as a species we still haven’t got to grips with treating each other with respect, a new species, especially a peaceful one, doesn’t have a chance in hell. Sometimes they arrive all guns blazing, or simply ready to destroy the planet in one fell swoop. Other times, however, they come in a much more subtle way.

Matthew has always been a good child, but one day his parents notice a slight change in his manner. His curiosity has become grander, and he doesn’t always seem to be understand what he’s talking about. His questions are difficult, such as wondering why humans have gender, or where exactly Earth is in space. Further probing from his parents leads them to discover Chocky, a voice in Matthew’s head that seems to be an entirely different personality – if not species – and frequently mocks Matthew and humanity for their technology and ideas.

Approaching a psychologist, Matthew’s parents come to the worrying conclusion that their son is possessed, apparently by a creature from another planet. And when Matthew does something incredible, supposedly under the instruction of Chocky, other people begin to question the changes in him. It all comes down to one thing, though: who is Chocky, and what could it possibly want with an eleven-year-old boy?

As I slowly truck through Wyndham’s works, I find them all somewhat unnerving. He’s a master at taking something that’s slightly off and making it chilling. In this one, he shares the same ability as Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut to look at humanity from above and see how strange we are. Since we don’t know any other sapient races, it’s impossible to know what about us would be strange to them and what they would understand. Here, we see an alien fail to grasp everything from our biology (which raises questions about their own) to our methods of energy production.

Although not a long book, it manages to pack a lot in, and it’s just strange enough to hold your attention. There’s something sinister about the whole thing, although Chocky doesn’t possess any violent or antagonistic tendencies, and actually it’s the humans around Matthew who provide more of the concern. Unscrupulous journalists fill the pages, alongside fantasy-hunting quacks and greedy scientists, and one feels pity more than anything for Matthew, perhaps just a lonely boy who found some contact at last.

A lovely book and just the right amount of creepy.

Looking for something to do while you wait for the world to return to normal? My new book, Questioning Your Sanity, is a quiz book containing over seven hundred questions and extra trivia on every page. It’s ideal for anyone missing their regular pub quiz, or anyone who wants to brush up on their general knowledge and check their mind hasn’t entirely gone during lockdown. It would also make a great gift for the trivia junkie in your life. Available in paperback or for Kindle now.

“Stuff You Should Know” by Josh Clark & Chuck Bryant (2020)

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“Hey and welcome to the book everybody.”

As someone who, when not reading or writing, tends to have something playing in my ears, I listen to a lot of podcasts. One I’ve listened to for a very long time is Stuff You Should Know, hosted by Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant. Since 2008, they’ve been regaling listeners in a light-hearted way about everything from wetlands and karaoke, to parrots and even death. At last, they’ve compiled a book.

Taking twenty-seven topics the podcast has yet to cover, Josh and Chuck explore this huge world of ours and continue to find something interesting in every topic imaginable. Here we learn about things you might have wondered about, such as who invented the first guns, how Mr Potato Head came about, and whether we can halt or reverse the aging process. Alongside these, we get topics I’d never even thought about, such as the psychology behind getting lost, where the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” comes from, and who the first roadies were. Add to that some exploration of mezcal, beards and demolition derbies, and you’ve got one of the most interesting books in recent years.

The book is great, and really good for dipping in and out of. The topics are varied and interesting, and it manages to retain the humour and lightness of the podcast thanks to jokes, call backs to previous episodes of the show, funny illustrations, and lots and lots of footnotes. Whatever your interests, there’s bound to be something in here that intrigues you. I was especially taken with the chapter on the Scotland Yard Crime Museum (the “Black Museum”) and especially how Josh and Chuck are repeatedly annoyed that they visited London a month after the secretive museum was opened for the first and last time. This is made even more unfortunate given I did manage to go, so I can totally sympathise with their irritation – they really missed out.

If you’re already a fan of the podcast, this is a must-have. If you’re not, it might inspire you to start. Just be prepared: there are over one thousand episodes. The book does handily refer to episodes when they brush up against a topic they’ve done before, so plenty of starting points for new listeners.

Looking for something to do while you wait for the world to return to normal? My new book, Questioning Your Sanity, is a quiz book containing over seven hundred questions and extra trivia on every page. It’s ideal for anyone missing their regular pub quiz, or anyone who wants to brush up on their general knowledge and check their mind hasn’t entirely gone during lockdown. It would also make a great gift for the trivia junkie in your life. Available in paperback or for Kindle now.

“Pyramids” by Terry Pratchett (1989)

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“Nothing but stars, scattered across the blackness as though the Creator had smashed the windscreen of his car and hadn’t bothered to stop to sweep up the pieces.”

I’ve made a couple of forays into Discworld and never been hugely keen. It’s odd, because everything about them seems like something I should be down with, but I just can’t get into them. After The Colour of Magic and Mort, I thought it was time to give it at least one more try, so here I am at Pyramids.

Teppic has been training to be an assassin in the city of Ankh-Morpork, which is going quite well except for the slight hitch that he’s just realised he isn’t able to kill people. However, he finds himself having to leave his education after his father, King Teppicymon XXVII, dies and Teppic is summoned back to the penniless desert country of Djelibeybi to rule as pharaoh.

Having no skills in running a country, especially one where the High Priest, Dios, is determined to twist all Teppic’s rulings for his own benefit, Teppic feels out of place. Things are complicated further by the arrest of the hand maiden Ptraci, the building of his father’s pyramid (a work of architecture so large it’s beginning to bend space and time), and the arrival of the old gods. It’s just another day on the Disc.

Someone told me that my attempts to get into Discworld are like trying to get into Shakespeare by reading half the sonnets, Venus and Adonis, and The Comedy of Errors but here we are. As it is, I think I enjoyed this one more than my previous efforts. Perhaps my issue remains sticking with his earlier books, when it’s commonly asserted that he gets better with time. Also, none of the recurring characters are here – except for a brief appearance by Death – so it feels more of a standalone.

Pratchett, there’s no denying it, is very clever, sharp, understands humanity and all its flaws, and is precise in skewering aspects of our existence. Here, he is particularly keen to take down, to some degree or another, religion, monarchy, people who don’t question authority, funeral services and examinations. For every brilliantly clever joke, there’s a silly one, such as how camels appear to have more knees than any other animal, or the subtly punny name of Teppic’s kingdom – Djelibeybi – which is easier to detect as funny when said out loud. At no point, however, is the writing out of key. It sits very perfectly in his world, and you can’t fault Pratchett when it comes to worldbuilding. The fact that none of the characters particularly stuck out and endeared themselves to me is excusable as they’re still strangely believable in a world that is utterly bizarre.

I’m still not done with Discworld. This has ensured my return for at least one more, just to see if I can finally crack into the series and work out what it is about them that works for so many people. It’s a nice, silly romp that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and I definitely needed a dollop of humour.

Looking for something to do while you wait for the world to return to normal? My new book, Questioning Your Sanity, is a quiz book containing over seven hundred questions and extra trivia on every page. It’s ideal for anyone missing their regular pub quiz, or anyone who wants to brush up on their general knowledge and check their mind hasn’t entirely gone during lockdown. It would also make a great gift for the trivia junkie in your life. Available in paperback or for Kindle now.

“The Bees” by Laline Paull (2014)

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“The old orchard stood besieged.”

Talk to anyone in the know about the climate change disaster that’s currently unfurling and before long it’s probable you’ll end up discussing the bees. With bee populations plummeting, the knock on effects to agriculture would be catastrophic. It might not seem real, given every supermarket in the world is still is well-stocked with honey, but bees do far more than that, and without them the world will be a poorer place indeed. In Laline Paull’s debut novel, she takes us inside the hive to meet them.

Flora 717 is a sanitation bee, born too big and ugly, unlike her sisters, and unusually for her kin, with the power of speech. This sets her aside from the others, but she maintains the same thought processes – sacrifice everything for the Queen and protect the hive at all costs. After a wasp attempts to attack the hive one day, Flora 717 is part of the group that helps kill it, and her status begins to grow, giving her new jobs elsewhere in the hive, even meeting the Queen herself.

But then Flora lays an egg, something that is utterly forbidden in the totalitarian state of the hive. Only the Queen may lay, and anyone else caught doing so is a traitor. Terrified of being discovered, but determined to save her child, Flora sets about performing ever-riskier feats in the name of protection. A mother will stop at nothing to ensure the survival of her offspring, but it may just cost her everything else and risk the very hive she swore to protect.

The risk anyone has when trying to tell a story from the point of view of a non-human animal is, of course, anthropomorphising the narrators. Paull, to her credit, does this pretty well here. The social structure of the hive is well explored here for the most part, and even has its own culture, with stories of the Myriad (the animals outside the hive that prey on the bees) and a Library where old memories can be recalled via scent and the ever-present Hive Mind. Although the bees are broadly speaking individuals, they each have hundreds of identical sisters, and are able to read one another’s thoughts.

Sometimes, however, the conceit falls down. Male bees are introduced wearing ruffs and with pomade in their hair. Nursing bees cradle the infants, and disbelief must be suspended a little when they make references to things being sharp as knives, for example. We have to allow some of these as to translate absolutely everything into a bee-specific language would leave us unable to know what’s going on, but they do occasionally come close to being a bit too human.

My biggest issue, actually, is the way that Flora 717 is able to move up and down the ranks of the hive and enter places she, as a sanitation worker, would not normally be able to access. She has already been born different, but to my recollection no explanation is forthcoming as to why she is the only one of the floras able to speak, or why she looks so different. Bee society runs on the adage “Accept, Obey, Serve”, and most of the bees around her are obsessed with order and everyone knowing their place. Why, then, is Flora an exception? I know it’s for novelistic purposes and for us to get to see the different areas of the hive, but narratively I need more. I understand she’s special, but why? Why are the hard and fast rules that have served the colony for years now broken and bent for this individual?

The book has enough good points and detailed research to keep you captivated – the way bee flight is described is great fun, and there are some lovely touches about how the bees see our world, too – but the plot still lacks something for me, with a predictable ending and still more nagging questions about the hows and whys.

Looking for something to do while you wait for the world to return to normal? My new book, Questioning Your Sanity, is a quiz book containing over seven hundred questions and extra trivia on every page. It’s ideal for anyone missing their regular pub quiz, or anyone who wants to brush up on their general knowledge and check their mind hasn’t entirely gone during lockdown. It would also make a great gift for the trivia junkie in your life. Available in paperback or for Kindle now.

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