Friday, 2 November 2012

The Black House

By Peter May


This is the first in a trilogy of murder mysteries set on Lewis, the largest and most northerly island in the Outer Hebrides. Black houses were the stone dwellings lived in by people across the islands until relatively recent times. They were known as 'black' houses because the fire in the middle of the main room and lack of ventilation led to them being constantly filled with smoke. The white houses that came along later were basically modern houses, with a hearth and chimney to allow the smoke to escape.

Edinburgh detective Fin Macleod is sent to investigate a brutal murder in the north of the island. He is chosen firstly because he is investigating a similar murder in Edinburgh and it's possible it's the same killer, and secondly because he is originally from the village in which the killing has taken place and speaks Gaelic.

Through a series of flashblacks told in the first person we learn about Fin's early life on the island. These are intertwined with the present day investigation which is told in the third person. As secrets from the past are revealed Fin is dragged personally into the case.

The local men are about to leave on their traditional annual guga hunt. Guga are young gannets and as seabirds are protected under British law. However, an exception is made allowing the men of Ness to carry out their hunt once a year as it is seen as an important local tradition originating in times when the guga would have provided essential food throughout the winter when the weather was too bad for fishing.

The men are going to Sula Sgeir, a desolate rock out in the Atlantic. Once there they will be cut off from the mainland for 14 days until the fishing boat that delivered them, returns to collect them. The time on the weather beaten rock consists of long days of hard work and primitive living conditions. Fin took part in the guga hunt the summer before he left for university and knows full well what it entails. In the story his old schoolfriend's son is about to make his first trip.

The book provides quite an accurate description of the tradition with just a few details changed - the number of men who take part is increased from ten to twelve in the novel, and the rock is never actually referred to as Sula Sgeir. Wanting to know more about the tradition I googled it and came up with this BBC web page  based on a documentary made a couple of years ago by Mike Day. The page includes a series of short videos which were quite interesting and helped me to see how close the book was to the reality.

Did I like this book? Yes, for the knowledge of the guga hunt I gained and yes it was an entertaining story. I didn't like the switching from first to third person, though I could see the reason for this (kind of). I also wouldn't class it as one of the best books I've read in this genre, but it's certainly not the worst and so I probably will read the rest of the trilogy.

October 2012 Twelve Review

Some of my 2012 Twelve challenges seem to be morphing into different tasks. I'm not too bothered about this as at least I feel like I'm achieving something. However, there are still far too many challenges that I've really not made any headway with at all and I'm fast running out of year. This bothers me a bit more.
  1. Floating in a floatation tank (I'm hoping to do this in London during the February half term)
  2. Reading at least 10 books from the BBC Big Read list (if I read 10 a year, I'll have the whole 200 knocked off in the next 12-13 years!) - Swallows and Amazons read; nine more to go for this year.
  3. Taking at least one photo every day of the year (this will improve my photography skills, be a photo-diary of 'year in my life', and help me to learn to use my new camera) - very few taken. 
  4. Coming up with a fitness plan and sticking to it (the start of my training for Kilimanjaro, though I may not actually climb it for several years yet) - keep making plans to go to the gym and then something comes up and I don't get there.
  5. Leading at least 4 of my own walks (good practice for my walking group leader's qualification) - not done any walking, let alone leading walks.
  6. Buying another house (need to get my finances in order first) - this seems to have morphed into a 'starting my own business' task instead.
  7. Learning to use at least 3 new pieces of technology or computer programmes (not counting my new camera) - had a quick course on using a special interactive whiteboard package. Seems really good, now I just need to use it a few times to get the hang of it.
  8. Doing a writing course (depends on the length of the course whether I'd complete it in the year or not) - as with going to the gym, I keep making plans to knuckle down and do this, and this something gets in the way. 
  9. Getting at least one piece of writing published (paid or unpaid, as long as someone else makes the decision to publish it and it's not self-published)
  10. Making a start on sorting out my photos (putting the prints that are currently still stuffed in packets into albums and getting all my photos scanned into the computer - no way will this be completed in a year, but I'll feel good even if I get started on it) - I've now decided to concentrate on my book database instead for this year.
  11. Buying a car/van that I can sleep in (and doing any necessary conversions/adaptations) - van conversions are on hold whilst I do work on my house, but I'm still hoping to have at least made a start by Christmas.
  12. Getting into cycling (even if it's just short cycle rides along decent paths) - I've been reading blogs about cycling trips to motivate myself. I know this isn't the same as getting out cycling myself, but at least it keeps it at the forefront of my mind.