Thursday, 30 November 2017

Book #56

The Black Lady of Broomhill by Helen Moir

The Black Lady of Broomhill is an account by local author and historian Helen Moir concerning the urban myth and factual story surrounding a local ghost story from Larkhall in South Lanarkshire, Scotland.

The stories of The Black Lady have haunted me since I was a child. Back then, the only information I had was that you would die immediately upon locking eyes with her, that she roamed around the pub near my house, and that she was mercilessly killed a long time ago. That was enough information to keep me from straying too far from home, especially at night.

As I got older, morbid curiosity seemed to overtake the fear, and articles online gave me some more clues to who The Black Lady was. Everything has been pieced together, rumour and speculation, until this factual account by Helen Moir ended up in the aforementioned pub. I had to buy it.

The Black Lady was a real woman, brought to Scotland by Captain McNeil-Hamilton. She was brown-skinned, unused to the Scottish climate and customs, and (I imagine) completely out of her depth. She lived in the Captain’s household, until one day the locals noticed her disappearance. Claiming she had gone home, despite damning evidence otherwise, the Captain continued with his life and ultimately died at a young age. It’s highly likely we will never know exactly what happened to her, but it seems she haunts the Broomhill estate to this day. In this account, Moir names her as Sita Phurdeen, giving real humanity to the spectre of myth all Lanarkshire locals tell stories about.

Moir’s interest in the lady’s origins greatly surpasses my own, and it’s astonishing to contemplate the level of research she’s undertaken to put this booklet together. It’s filled with gorgeous factual accounts and pictures of the Broomhill house and their customs. Not only that, Moir has a close connection with the house and family who lived there, as members of her family worked for the household at the time Sita Phurdeen was resident. Recounting a series of recurring dreams she has over the course of many years, she speculates and surmises on the Black Lady’s fate. Most disturbingly of all, she compares a room she sees in her dreams with an old servant’s account, and it’s scarily familiar. Add in some ghostly sightings of the lady, and this makes for very curious reading.

Although my curiosity will never be fulfilled on this score until I learn the full story - one, I’m sure, which will never surface, this is a delightful and chilling collection of facts on Larkhall, the lady herself, and the man who brought her here. Whether he is to be vilified or not remains to be seen, however I have never thought of him as anything other than a villain.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Book #55

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

High in his attic bedroom, twelve-year-old David mourns the death of his mother, with only the books on his shelf for company. But those books have begun to whisper to him in the darkness. Angry and alone, he takes refuge in his imagination and soon finds that reality and fantasy have begun to meld. While his family falls apart around him, David is violently propelled into a world that is a strange reflection of his own -- populated by heroes and monsters and ruled by a faded king who keeps his secrets in a mysterious book, The Book of Lost Things.

It’s wonderful to read a book a second time, many years after the first read, and discover that it still evokes the same wonder and awe as it did the first time. Hell, this time it even coaxed a tear from my cold, dry eyes.

Connolly begins by immersing us into David’s life during WWII. He loses his mother, his father finds a new wife, David is given a half-brother. All of these factors contribute to an onset of anger, bitterness, jealousy, and grief. It’s so very real, this stark reality, that we’re not prepared for Connolly to begin trickling in some fantasy, and some serious mind bending events.

This is every fairytale you’ve ever heard come to life and twisted. It’s every monster you’ve ever dreamed of in front of you, ready to attack. David finds himself in a world of folklore and nightmares, and so begins his journey into gratitude, acceptance, and adulthood; and his awakening is magnificent.

Connolly’s writing is gorgeous and wonderfully paced. He slowly dips us into this strange land of phenomenon, introduces us to the wonderfully developed characters who are oddly real despite being plucked from fairy tales and torment. The band of communist dwarves, hellbent on teaching lessons to anyone who dares to oppress them, were a particular favourite.

This isn’t a kid’s book. I’d be tempted to suggest it isn’t even young adult. It’s dark as hell, with some really cruel plot movements and terrifying moments. We visit some themes which are truly heart-wrenching, and although I don’t want to talk about Roland for the sake of spoilers, the person he was and the fate he encountered was the saddest part of all.

Instead, my feelings on this is that it’s a lesson in humanity. Things will happen to make us bitter, to make us jealous, to tempt us to throw others into harm’s way in order to save ourselves. Connolly teaches us here to embrace understanding, and that it’s what we do with those feelings that matters most.

The fact that I cried at the end of this novel speaks volumes. It’s so so powerful and gorgeous. 

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.