Monday, 13 November 2017

Book #54

Socrates’ Defence by Plato

Somewhere between a historical account and work of philosophy, Socrates' Defence details the final plea of Plato's beloved mentor. 

Socrates is put on trial for his free thinking, for his exploration of the space between heaven and earth, and for expressing his thoughts free of charge to the youth of Athens. In this gorgeous work by Plato, we are shown him arguing for his life whilst exposing the twistedness of his accusers.

He expresses his defence in the simplest terms available to him in order to quash the accusations of his confusing eloquence. Despite the simplicity of his words, his argument remains thought-provoking and profound as he explains why he believes himself to be innocent. The attempt at vindication itself should be read to appreciate the wonder of it, which is why I won’t go into further detail here.

Despite his carefully put explanations, Socrates is sentenced to death. Plato beautifully allows us to understand why this is a grave mistake from the jurymen of Athens as Socrates describes his lack of fear pertaining to death, and also reminds us that no one knows whether death is worse than life - we only assume.

The accusers of Socrates feared him for his individuality, for how he differed from them, for how he was wiser than them. They feared him speaking the truth, and for the population to realise he was speaking the truth. They made him pay for all of this, and I defy anyone to disagree with the fact that people are still persecuted for all of these things today. It’s mind-bending, maddening.

‘If you think that by killing men you can prevent someone from censuring your evil lives, you are mistaken; that is not a way of escape which is either possible or honorable; the easiest and the noblest way is not to be disabling others, but to be improving yourselves.’

It truly is unbelievable how relevant this text is today as it was in the fifth century. Socrates was targeted simply because of who he was, and he paid the ultimate price for his distinctiveness. It doesn’t take a philosopher to see how that jars with 2017 - many already have been forced to drink the hemlock merely because of the way they are.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Book #53

Strange Scottish Stories by William Owen

Ghosts, witches, unexplained mysteries, and the supernatural are the basis for this fascinating Ghost Series which relates ghost stories from Scotland.

I was prepared to be thoroughly terrified by this collection of stories; I wasn’t. Instead, I was filled with an immense feeling of intrigue, curiosity, and (bizarrely) déjà vu. As each of the tales originated in Scotland, mainly the Highlands, I felt a huge impact of patriotism and an odd pride at seeing my ancestors cut each other’s heads off.

Owen’s collection of tales range from myth and legend, to those he tells us are absolutely true. We are left alone to decide which of the stories fall into each category - an uncomfortable and difficult feat. Murder, ghosts, deceit, revenge, and even Falkirk’s favourite - the kelpie, are themes within the book, and each glimpse is as grim as the last.

My favourite thing about this book is its commentary on old Scottish custom and social hierarchy. We’re going as far back as the 1700s here, and it was gorgeous to read of the ways of the people in our country at that time. Even if, y’know, they were plagued with the ghost of a widow bent on vengeance.

It’s nothing that will keep you from sleeping, but there’s something really queer about it that I can’t put my finger on. Well worth a read for us Scots, and for anyone else who’s looking for a piece of something arcane. 

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Book #52

One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus

Yale hopeful Bronwyn has never publicly broken a rule. Sports star Cooper only knows what he's doing in the baseball diamond. Bad body Nate is one misstep away from a life of crime. Prom queen Addy is holding together the cracks in her perfect life.
And outsider Simon, creator of the notorious gossip app at Bayview High, won't ever talk about any of them again.
He dies 24 hours before he could post their deepest secrets online. Investigators conclude it's no accident. All of them are suspects.
Everyone has secrets, right? What really matters is how far you'll go to protect them. 

This is a stunning reinforcement of my opinion that young adult fiction is for everyone.

McManus’s range of characters was a big hit for me here. Painted on the cover as stereotypes - the geek, the jock, the criminal, the princess - they were so diverse, so complicated, so not stereotypical at all, and so dredged in teenage angst, that I was gripped from the beginning. Each of them having that Breakfast Club vibe in the modern time was only a bigger hit for me. Add in the murder and we’ve got ourselves a party.

Each of the accused give us their first point narrative in alternating chapters. This allows us to get under the skin of all of them, find out what their motivations could be to commit the crime, and understand everything else going on in their lives. Even the sub-characters were perfectly rounded - I have a particular love for the badass we call Maeve. Relationships, family issues, and ill health were all part of their struggles, and McManus paints them all in such a way that we can’t believe any of them had anything to do with it. How could they?

An author’s skill in these types of novels is to leave ambiguous clues for the reader to guess what’s happened before the big reveal. If you have the intellect (or, if you’re like me and have read so much Sherlock Holmes you should probably consider joining the police), you’ll be able to work this one out pretty quickly. McManus peppers little hints throughout the pages, which can either lead the reader to the secret, or make the plot even more tantalising. Everyone wins here.

It’s difficult to say much more without descending into spoiler-realm, but I will say this: if you think young adult novels aren’t worth your time, you are missing out immeasurably. One of Us Is Lying is the most gripping, enjoyable, addictive and plain readable novel I’ve had the pleasure to encounter in a long time.

Get buying. 

Monday, 30 October 2017

Book #51

The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don't like her. She jokes that she won't bite, but they don't laugh.
Melanie loves school. She loves learning about spelling and sums and the world outside the classroom and the children's cells. She tells her favorite teacher all the things she'll do when she grows up. Melanie doesn't know why this makes Miss Justineau look sad.

Zombie-lit has never been my thing. The moaning, shuffling undead, hellbent on chewing the flesh of a group of protagonists who are mostly armed and ready to send them from dead, to completely dead. Throw in a couple of character development points, probably a couple of them falling in love, and we have ourselves a novel. No thanks.

I didn’t know this was a zombie novel until I was pretty far in. It was a blessing, but this is one novel I am finding very tricky to review.

Britain has been infected, and Melanie is a child born after the Breakdown. She lives in a cell in a military base, and is transported to her classroom each morning by wheelchair, shackled, muzzled, and restrained. She isn’t clear on why she’s in this situation, but she loves learning, and loves her teacher. Melanie is infected, but she has still retained her intellect, her humanity, and her capacity for love. Her hunger is triggered by the smell of flesh, and with the measures taken by the staff at the base, she never feels it. Until the base is attacked and Melanie escapes alongside he teacher, a sergeant, and a doctor.

Melanie becomes the only hope for a cure. Literally none of the group travelling with her have any particular desire to keep her alive, apart from the teacher who isn’t willing to sacrifice her due to personal feelings of guilt over an incident in the past. Lady, let the doc slice her brain open, let’s cure the country and go back to sitting comfortably at home watching X Factor rather than running across the barren metropolis as zombie bait.

The book is essentially a commentary on humanity, what makes us human, and the blurred lines between what is good and what is evil. Melanie is torn between her human thoughts and feelings and her survival instinct to feast on those she has escaped with, and who are keeping her safe.

Carey spends time giving us back stories to each of the characters, helping us understand where they’ve come from, and their motivations. These stories also give us a good grasp on what happened to the country at infection, and how the government handled this going forwards. Despite the stories, I felt the characters blended into each other by having similar dialogue. I found it difficult to understand who was talking, and I would have appreciated some more differentiation.

There’s loads of action in here, plenty of tension, and the suspense killed me in places. But I didn’t love it. I don’t even know if I liked it. All I know is that if you asked me to read another zombie novel, I’d be asking you what option two would be.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Book #50

Transit by Rachel Cusk

In the wake of family collapse, a writer and her two young sons move to London. The process of upheaval is the catalyst for a number of transitions—personal, moral, artistic, practical—as she endeavors to construct a new reality for herself and her children. In the city she is made to confront aspects of living she has, until now, avoided, and to consider questions of vulnerability and power, death and renewal, in what becomes her struggle to reattach herself to, and believe in, life.

I was bought this book as a gift, and didn’t realise until this very moment that it had a predecessor. I wondered if this was why I maybe didn’t get it, but quickly realised I did get it; I just didn’t like it.

Faye moves to London with her two sons in the aftermath of her divorce. Once there, she stumbles into various people with whom she has highly unlikely conversations. These small glimpses of sub-characters lives are what make up the plot. I’m sure there’s something there about Faye making sense of her life through other people, but these tiny vignettes did nothing to pique my interest, and only seemed to distance us further from Faye. Not that this was problem, as Faye was as bland and emotionless as they come.

Our sub characters, however, were all philosophy personified. Each of them had incredibly profound and intellectual views on life, and the human psyche; each of them an unrealistic, trite piece of work. You’re lucky if you can find one person in life who you can have these types of conversations with - for it to be every single person you bump into is simply fantasy.

Although I felt the writing flowed beautifully, and Cusk’s language was lyrical, it blundered along like a bad dream. I understand the benefits of the passive listener, but this was really dire.

Style over substance.