Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Aboriginal Life by James Daschuk

This book charts how contact with Europeans impacted upon the economy and lifestyle, and therefore diet and health, of the original inhabitants of what are now the prairie provinces of Canada from the early fur trade through to the end of the 19th century.

Most people now know that disease took its toll in the west of North America long before Europeans settled in any numbers.  What I had not appreciated is how disruptive the fur trade was from the very beginning, when the fur traders were not settling in the west, but coming to trade with native middlemen and transporting the furs back east.  Not only in terms of disease transmission but it skewed the economy so that it was harder for a family to prepare itself for the winters.

I had been aware of the forced movement of native peoples later on but not that the early disruptions from the fur trade had a knock-on effect of mass migration.  As there became more demand for furs, the social costs (alcoholism, STIs, etc) became worse.  The collapse of the buffalo population was one such effect and had become inevitable when the main action was still in the woodlands to the north rather than settlement on the open prairie.

I’ve read a bit about the North West Rebellion of 1885 (from badly taught high school history, the only interesting thing that ever happened in Saskatchewan) so I was already aware of the new Canadian government’s calculated use of starvation and withholding food rations as a method of social control during this period.  This book outlines how disease moved in in the wake of malnutrition.

The author assumes a little more knowledge than I have (or could remember) about general prairie history, but nothing that isn’t easily looked up on the internet, so it’s  accessible to the general reader.

One goes into any book on Canada’s First Nations knowing it’s going to be depressing and angry-making, and this is no exception.  In particular, being from Regina, I can’t believe one of our main streets is still named after Dewdney.  I was going to say this is one for Canadian history buffs, but it should be required reading for the sort of people who have a terrible attitude to native peoples and/or think colonisation was great.  ie exactly the people who would never read it.

Midnight Sun by Ramsey Campbell

Ben Starling is orphaned at the age of 8 and is sent from his home town in Yorkshire to live with an aunt in Norwich.  When the aunt dies many years later, he discovers that the family home was never sold, so he, his wife Ellen and his two children move in.

The house comes with a forest, in which Ben’s great grandfather died, after travelling in the north of Scandinavia collecting the folk tales of its Arctic inhabitants.  He has vague memories of his father and grandfather taking him into the forest.

Everything is great at first; the children love their new life and Ben and Ellen can finally afford to write full time and have a very successful book and lots of inspiration to write more.

But then winter comes early, a few strange things happen, Ben starts acting oddly, and the village gets cut off from the outside world.  What did great-grandfather Starling bring back from the north?  There was a surviving copy of his published book but Ben’s (disapprovingly religious) aunt made it disappear as soon as he took an interest in it.

This is a lot like something MR James would have written if MR James wrote novels.  And knew anything about family life and/or had ever met a woman.[1]  It’s a slow burner – for most of the book not a lot happens but there’s an undercurrent of unease that gradually builds.

I liked the mythos – it’s not quite what you think it is from the set-up, but it’s much better. Unfortunately I found the ending unconvincing.

This book was published in 1990.  I’d lived in England for a bit then, and the book has the feel of an earlier setting, as if it was the 70s.  But maybe that’s just me.

This is the second one of Campbell’s novels I’ve read.  The last was years ago but I seem to remember that it was also pretty good but not unputdownable.  I’ve also read a volume of his short stories and they’re much better.  If you like ghost-story type psychological horror rather than a gore-fest, you could do worse than this.

[1] MR James wrote some of the best ghost stories in the world, no question.  But one has to admit that his scope was limited.

A Long Day in Lychford by Paul Cornell

This is the third of the Witches of Lychford novellas.  Lychford is a fictional Cotswolds village where the boundaries between worlds are a bit thin, and need tending.  In the first, Witches of Lychford, the three village witches have to stop an out of town supermarket which, if built, will bring worse consequences than just the local shops closing down.  It’s a lovely read but not all that special.  The second, The Lost Child of Lychford, is much better – really creepy and palpably malevolent stuff involving a ghost child and selfish people who want to get married in the village church on Christmas Day.

So I was really looking forward to this.  I even won an advance copy at Bristol Horror Con.  That was back in October.  Even when a book is a priority it can take me this long to get around to it.  Especially if it is a slim volume that easily gets lost in the pile.

In this one, the witch who is the only non-black person in the village is being made to feel uncomfortable in the wake of Brexit and tensions in the village are high.  Then one day an older man and a Polish truck driver disappear, the whole village can hear a rave but nobody can find it, and Lizzie the vicar/witch finds a prince of Faerie in her kitchen demanding to know what they’ve done to the boundaries between dimensions.  Our heroines have to find out what’s happened and how to stop it before the boundaries between worlds break down.

It’s not long,and I read it in one day.  There are some really nice touches in here, like how some realities gave western Christians their ideas of hell, and Lizzie’s fitness tracker ruling her life.  One of the characters possibly developing dementia is as horrific as the supernatural stuff.

But there’s something about this that I didn’t love as much as the second book.  Maybe because it wasn’t creepy in the same way.  There’s certainly suspense, but that’s not the same.  I thought the other two were perfect as novellas, this one I thought would have added more if it had been fleshed out into a full-length novel.

The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

For many years I thought I was more of a fan of Sherlock Holmes as a cultural phenomenon  than of the original stories.  I suspect that was because I first read some of the tales when I was too young to appreciate much about them.  When the BBC rebooted Holmes yet again the Radio Times produced some cheap Penguin editions and I have been (very slowly) re-acquainting myself with the real thing.  I was surprised by how much I enjoy the original Sherlock Holmes stories.

This volume is later stories, after Conan Doyle gave in to pressure to resurrect Holmes after Reichenbach Falls: The Empty House, The Norwood Builder, The Dancing Men, The Solitary Cyclist, The Priory School and Black Peter.

All are really clever mysteries, well told .  If you’re not a complete nerd, that’s enough of a recommendation right there.  If, like me, you are fascinated by all sorts of cultural nuances, this collection throws up some snippets to make you think.  For instance, where a murder occurs in the course of a kidnapping that was commissioned by a third party, Holmes remarks how the party who commissioned the kidnapping is morally but not legally culpable.  I wasn’t sure that that was even an idea that was current at the time.

One that bothers me more is Watson as narrator tells us that Holmes doesn’t care about wealth and rank and will turn down less interesting cases from the rich and famous in favour of more challenging cases for ordinary people.  It is also common knowledge that the outcomes of Holmes stories sometimes are of a moral and practical justice rather than strictly legal.  So I’m left scratching my head about the one where a Duke’s (illegitimate) son is allowed to escape to Australia rather than answer for his crimes.  Either Holmes is saying that it’s OK because of who the culprit is; or else going to Australia is considered a fate worse than prison/hanging.  Either option is problematic to 21st century sensibilities.  It’s easy to say they didn’t think that way in late Victorian times, but I’m not entirely convinced.

In short, if you are at all interested in crime fiction or in a cultural phenomenon that has taken on a life of its own, you should really read these.  If you haven’t read them since you were a teenager, they do repay a re-read.

Hild by Nicola Griffith

This was recommended to a friend on Facebook and, being interested in all things Anglo-Saxon, ordered it from the library.  I came to it with no expectations; I had never heard of the author before.

I loved it.  It’s not an easy read – it is very long and not quick going, although it’s detailed rather than dense (I was able to read it on public transport).

Hild was the abbess who presided over the Synod of Whitby.  (It’s a big deal in early medieval history).  There are a couple of lines in Bede about her early life and then nothing until she turns up in Gaul many years later.  Griffith has imagined her early life.

Hild’s mother was in a precarious situation so she claimed that she had a vision whilst she was pregnant that her child would be “the light of the world”.  From the very beginning she trains Hild to observe everything – people, animals, and weather.  When, following her father’s murder they end up at the court of King Edwin of Northumbria she gains a reputation as the King’s seer from a ludicrously early age.  There is nothing supernatural about her talent; she just observes and is incredibly good at drawing conclusions.

Hild becomes indispensable to the king and rich, but mostly people are afraid of her and, when the Christians show up, there is tension with bishop Paulinus.  She has a part in almost all the political (or tribal, if you will) intrigues in the British Isles.  She’s never safe, though – one false “prophecy” and it will all be over.

The political aspects are interwoven with descriptions of the day to day business of keeping a settlement alive and prosperous in the early Anglo-Saxon period which is hard work for everyone but particularly women, and shows how women’s work is essential to the economy.  There are a lot of references to warp and weft – not only is weaving a very important activity, early Germanic cultures thought of fate in this idiom.  There is some rhythmic, repetitive language which is reminiscent of oral traditions.  (The bard is a key figure at Edwin’s court).  The descriptions of the wildlife and the landscape are just wonderful.  It is not a landscape that I know well (except for the parts set in what is now West Yorkshire), but they are places I have been and the descriptions are wonderfully evocative.

Even though we know that Hild will be OK, there’s a lot of tension in the book.  Kings and chieftains are fickle creatures and nobody knows when they will fall our of favour.  There’s war, and banditry, and deaths in childbirth and from disease. Val McDermid’s blub on the cover says “reads like a thriller”, and it does.  There is a chapter where Hild is staying at a thegn’s home instead of being on tour with the king and she notices how relaxed everyone is – just getting on with their jobs and hanging out in the hall rather than lots of men boasting and jostling for attention all the time.

The early medieval period is fertile ground for historical fiction – there are so many snippets in the primary sources that are open to all kinds of interpretation.  It also has several features that are intriguing to modern audiences – the tensions between paganism and Christianity, relations between the native Britons and the Anglo-Saxon invaders (or equivalent ethnic groups anywhere in Europe following the migration age), and an honour-bound warrior culture.

I could waffle on for ages but the short version is I highly recommend this book if you like historical fiction or detailed, evocative writing.

Highlights of my 2017 reading year

I read 74 books this year (counting the two graphic novels, which I do).  I was surprised by that, because my best year was 75 and it really felt like I was treading water for a lot of this year.

Looking through my list, this was a pretty good year in terms of quality.  By quality, I mean how much I liked the books I read, so I’m going to have to be really picky if I want to finish this post today.

Fiction first:

Facebook advertised Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale at me and it sounded like just my thing, but one shouldn’t trust Facebook advertising so I got it from the library.   It’s a sort of fairytale set in post-Mongol invasion Rus about a local landowner’s daughter who sees spirits, etc and the battle between those spirits and the new Orthodox priest’s clampdown on traditional ways.  I enjoyed it immensely and will definitely look out for her work in the future; however, there was something that I couldn’t put my finger on that stopped it from being one of those books which falls into the “go away, I’m reading!” category.

I have to do a shout out for Andy Weir’s The Martian.  It’s not great literature but it made me laugh out loud, a lot, and still told a fun adventure story.

Next up is New Worlds, Old Ways edited by Karen Lord, a collection of Caribbean science fiction and fantasy.  A wonderfully varied collection.  I learned that Trinidad & Tobago has repressive government issues.  My personal favourite was the Caribbean Gothic story set on Bermuda.

I read the latest three books in CJ Sansom’s Shardlake series.  They’re really compelling mysteries but convey the fact that Henry VIII’s time was a reign of terror & what that does to people better than any history book I’ve ever read.

Nathan Carson’s Starr Creek is a Lovecraftian horror novella set in rural Oregon in the 80s.  The prose is a bit clunky at first but it rewards the little effort needed to finish it.  I’ll stay in the city where it’s safe, thanks.

Emma Newman’s After Atlas is essential reading if you want to be really angry about everything that’s wrong with the world. And be gripped by a most excellent thriller.

I encountered Catriona Ward on panels at the Nine Worlds convention in 2016 but it took me till this September to read her book, Rawblood, a gothic novel set in a crumbling Devon farmhouse.  At first I didn’t think she was as clever as she thinks she is (being one of the few people who has read *all* her source material, including Melmoth the Wanderer), but it picks up the pace and ends up being very good indeed.

I’m a big fan of Ken Macleod but for some reason had never read The Restoration Game. It has replaced The Night Sessions as my favourite of his books.  Spies, a breakaway Georgian enclave that doesn’t exist and a video game as propaganda – what’s not to love.  It’s so good that I wasn’t even put off by the conclusion belonging to a trope that usually makes me want to throw the book at the wall.

Things got really difficult for me towards the end of the year, and two books got me through it: Charles de Lint’s The Wind in his Heart – a trademark de Lint fantasy story fusing Celtic and native American mythology; and the first Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind.  I suspect the latter may not be as good as I think it was, but it had a story that kept me turning the pages and characters that I really liked and wasn’t too hard to read at a time when I really needed some escapism.

Two books that I liked less than everyone else were Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown and Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. Both are fine novels that just didn’t speak to me.

I don’t usually like to be negative, but I have to single out The Girl on the Train as the worst book I read this year.  For some years, even.  It was so awful I felt dirty reading it.  As I said in my introductory post, when it comes to bus-reading thrillers I have pretty low standards, but this was just vile.  All the male characters are controlling and abusive and the women are all the same person basically and pretty repellent too.  I only finished it because it’s a mystery and I had to know Who Done It.

Non fiction:

Lots of good stuff but two that really changed my life:

Adam Nicholson The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters.  I couldn’t put it down.  I have been getting more interested in all things Bronze Age for a while and this put that interest on steroids.  I read both The Iliad and The Odyssey right away.  I had tried to read The Iliad straight out of undergrad when I had a bit of knowledge of classical Greece but without understanding that it is another culture entirely, and in an unengaging translation.  Reading it and understanding the context, I ended up actually liking The Iliad better than The Odyssey (which modern readers are not “supposed” to do).  Even if the interpretation “and Achilles sulks in his tent” is a valid viewpoint too.

Alan Bewell Romanticism and Colonial Disease.  The subject matter is right next door to that of my incomplete PhD.  I might have finished if this had not come out the year after I dropped out.  I was bogged down in a lot of theoretical crap in order to get to the point I could tell my story whereas this is about how the Romantic poets actually responded to the phenomenon of colonial disease, both in England and in the Empire.  This book made me read *and appreciate* Wordsworth.  (You can go into a room full of Romanticists and tell by looking at people who studies Wordsworth.  All the “normals”.  As a goth scholar of Byron and Blake I was contractually obliged to hate Wordsworth.) And it’s got me reading Romantic poetry again for the first time in about 20 years.

There were so many books about Russia and the Revolution that I might come back to those for a future post.

Welcome

I read. A lot. Everything from Charlaine Harris to Tolstoy, and as much non fiction as I can manage. The latter skews heavily towards medieval history, but anything could crop up. I started recording my reading on Livejournal in 2007 but fell out of the habit when my account corrupted early in 2017 and I moved to Dreamwidth, but I’ve missed it.

The rules: If I read it, I write about it. You will soon learn that I have no shame. I read a lot of trash. I also love Pushkin. And Beowulf. But those are hard to read on the bus.

I am involved with the local science fiction and fantasy group so I read a fair few books by people I know. I always provide a disclaimer when the author is someone I go to the pub with.

I don’t always have a lot of time, so some of my reviews will be one-liners.

About me: Lapsed academic (early medieval history in the first incarnation; romantic orientalism in take 2). Crazy rodent lady. Full time freak. Older than dirt.