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I am so far behind on this, I can't even remember much about most of the books from the last six weeks.

28 Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages by Stephen A Mitchell

After a really unpromising introduction that led me to order a bunch of other non-fiction titles from the library, eventually I came back to this book to give it a chance.

Glad I did - the rest was actually quite good. It's got two basic parts - what we (might) know about the role of magic & the supernatural in Norse paganism, and in the Christian period, what practices made up what was perceived as witchcraft or devil worship. Good analysis of what we can know and not; lots of interesting factoids which I now can't remember.

You have to be my kind of nerd, but for what it is, it's pretty well written and interesting. (This is a book that Amazon pimped at me when I bought one of the Viking histories, so it came to me without any recommendations from a trusted source; it could have been complete bollocks).
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I had thoughts about all of these at the time; but I've it off too long to have anything meaningful to say.

41. The Wylde Hunt by Gunnar Roxen

Bought this from the author at BristolCon last year. It's a far-future hardboiled detective/scifi adventure. The London in it is so far-future and alternative that I think it would have been better placed in a wholly fictional environment. The plot, while a bit predictable, was pretty damn good.

However, it was let down by some seriously awful copy editing - comma splices abounded where they did not add effect or emphasis, wrong words used - which made it more difficult than it needed to be and ruined the whole experience.

42. Mayhem by Sarah Pinborough

September's Bibliogoths selection. I've heard a lot of good things about Pinborough, from people like Paul Cornell who I esteem highly.

It's a fictionalised interpretation of the Thames Torso Murders, which happened about the same time as Jack the Ripper. (Remember: I have close to zero tolerance for all things Ripper). While I wasn't feeling immersed in Victorian London, I only picked up one linguistic blunder.

It's a good enough yarn, but I didn't feel the love at all. Partly because a lot of it centres around opium dens in East London in the 1880s and I recently attended a talk about how everything we think we know about them come from one "news" source written by a guy who'd never been to one. Partly because there's too much poverty tourism on the subject already. Mainly because nothing about it really grabbed me.

I was in the minority - everyone else loved it.

43. Revolutionaries: Inventing an American Nation by Jack Rackove

So some time ago we were watching Turn and Sons of Liberty concurrently and I realised that most of what I know about the American Revolution is primary-school level stuff that was probably more legend than truth, and this had been on my wish list since the author was pimping it on the Daily Show years ago.

The early bits about how the Adamses and Washington etc evolved their thinking to becoming independent were quite interesting; the later bits about how they actually built a new government from the bottom up were important to know but not that gripping. And someone the story of Adams and Jefferson in Paris came across as very dull indeed.

44. The Education of Auggie Merasty: A Residential School memoir by Joseph Auguste Merasty

My brother sent me this for my birthday. It's a very short volume in which an aging Native man recalls his harrowing experience at one of Canada's infamous residential schools. (I'm not articulate enough to explain: Google it. Let's just say it's not Canada's finest hour).

Harrowing stuff, but an absolutely essential read.

45. Railsea by China Mieville

Moby Dick but with giant moles where the sea is a giant quicksand desert only passable by rail.

It took me ages to get into it but eventually I quite enjoyed it.

46. A Better Way to Die by Paul Cornell

The complete short stories of Paul Cornell. I bounced off a few of them, but some are very good indeed. My favourite, conceptually, is a mashup of MR James and Scooby Doo. I laughed very hard at that. I by far prefer his Shadow Police novels though.

47. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Last month's Bibliogoths book. I can't believe I've never read it. Something Wicked is one of the few books I've kept re-reading regularly since I was 12 but for some reason I thought I didn't like Bradbury's science fiction.

I liked this a lot more than I expected. There's a lot to it, none of which I can articulate here. And his prose is lyrical and magical.

48. Base Spirits by Ruth Barrett

Disclaimer: I have known Ruth since 1986. She was my partner in crime when I first came to Leeds as a student in 1989-90.

This is a ghost story about a Canadian woman who is in a terrible marriage, has writer's block and is on a deadline for a commissioned play. Her husband has some academic commitments in England so they rent Calverley Old Hall (a real place, with a real traumatic past) to stay in so she can work. Along with some friends, they get drunk and summon the spirits of the place. Things go badly.

It's genuinely spooky - I couldn't put it down. But it's really about domestic violence and toxic relationships and the damage those do.

Highly recommended. I'm not just saying that because I know her.

49. The Age of the Vikings by Anders Winroth

An introductory text to the Viking Age but presented in a way that was really different from every other basic text on the time I've read. For a start, it starts with a Viking raid on Nantes in the 840s rather than the standard opening of the raid on Lindisfarne, because we have a much more detailed description of the raid on Nantes than we do for any other single raid. How did I not know that?

Whereas most English-language books on the Vikings focus on contact with Britain and Ireland, Winroth gives more information on interaction with Northern Germany and the Carolingians. As well as the standard material about exploration into the Byzantine Empire and points east.

This is a fantastic book - engagingly written, I learned new things and saw things I know from new perspectives. It's a really lovely volume too.

50. Spirits from Beyond by Simon R Green

I read one of Green's Nightside novels years ago and although it's sheer pulp, I loved it, mostly for the characters. I've been meaning to read more since. Green is very prolific and has many different series of books. He was at Bristol Horror Con last month and only had some of his "Ghost Finders" series so I bought one.

I didn't like this as much, mainly because the characters are just assholes. However, when the book finished all the set-up and story arc stuff and it got to the nitty gritty of the haunted pub, I couldn't put it down.

51. The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones by Jack Wolf

I went to a panel at Foyles last year about writing historical fiction, and Jack was on the panel. It was probably the most interesting literary discussion I've been to in a very long time; and I was totally convinced about this novel.

It's the story of Tristan Hart, a squire's son in Berkshire in the mid-18th century, who goes to London to lodge with Henry Fielding and study medicine with Hunter. Hart is an avowed atheist and scientific rationalist.

Except that he's a sexual sadist and (most of a problem) completely insane, absolutely convinced of the existence of a malign world of fairies who have it in for him.

It's written in as close to an authentic 18th century voice as Wolf thought he could get away with. A lot of people (note to self: Don't read Good Reads, ever. Bunch of morons who don't get out much) find that really annoying, but I think he trod the line really well. It's 550 pages long and at the start I thought, I wonder how long it will be before this pisses me off, but it didn't. It conveys the protagonist's conflict between rationalism and madness really well.

It's pretty difficult, emotionally and textually, but I found it was thoroughly worth the effort - even though it's taken me about two months to read, in small bits, I absolutely loved it.
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14.The Anglo-Saxon World by Nicholas Higham and Martin Ryan

A great big colourful, map- and illustration-filled intro to the Anglo-Saxons.

Very pretty. Very big and heavy and I've been reading it since the beginning of February.

As I suspected, the archaeology has moved on leaps and bounds since I was doing this professionally, whereas the thinking on the recorded history hasn't changed much. (They were doing the extended excavations at Sutton Hoo when I was studying but the results hadn't been published; and the Staffordshire Hoard just squeaked into this edition).

It was a good refresher and for bringing me up to speed.

I'm getting more and more sucked into the post-Rome migration era.

There's a lot about the foundations of the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (and Christianity) coming from the Franks, and left wondering if there's a good single-volume history of the Franks that would act as a companion to this. A quick search says there's one in the Peoples of Europe series (those who brought us The Norsemen in the Viking Age, which is frankly excellent), but if anyone has suggestions I'm open to it. I still have my copy of Gregory of Tours around here somewhere - there are some things which, no matter how far you stray from the fold, you just don't get rid of.
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9. Swords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson

I became aware of Snorri because he was on a panel about magic at the last BristolCon, and I was given his book for Christmas. I had the opportunity to meet him again last week when I was about two thirds of the way through the book.

As the name might give away, Snorri is an Icelander but he lives in London and writes in English.

The book is, for the first two thirds, a fairly average historical novel, except that there's intimations the Norse gods might be real and magic might exist. (When I say fairly average, I mean the story isn't that gripping - the historicity is Pretty Damn Good).

Two princes of the Svear are near the end of a two-year a "trade mission" (one of them did something stupid and had to make himself scarce) around the Nordic world when they pitch up in a raiding settlement at the arse end of Norway. Unbeknownst to them, two forces are converging on the town - King Olaf (the first king of a more or less united Norway and bringer of Christianity) and an enormous force of Vikings led by a mysterious woman (and one of whose chiefs is a take-no-prisoners female warrior) intent on keeping the old religion alive.

The last third has more magic and more action, and is pretty gripping stuff indeed. Most of the end I saw coming, not least because Snorri read from Volume 2 on Monday night, but there was a twist that I didn't anticipate, and is one of those that makes you kick yourself and go "of course".

I usually get really bored by Epic Battle Scenes, but this one was engaging.

The best part is what he's done with the Norn... that's really clever, and made my brain hurt a bit. And would likely bypass anyone who's not familiar with the mythology.

So a slow start, but now I can't wait for the sequel to be released.
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33. The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman by Nancy Marie Brown

The woman in the title is Gudrid, who appears in the Greenland and Vinland sagas, who travelled from Iceland to Greenland and Vinland, and later in life made a pilgrimage to Rome.

As with most books on the early medieval period aimed the general reader, I came to it wondering how the author has padded out the source material to make a book.

The answer here is with lots of archaeology, experimental archaeology and travelogues. The result is an entertaining and really informative read about daily life in early Iceland, Greenland and Vinland. It brought home to me the immense hardhships of life in those places in a way that none of the previous (numerous) books I've read on the subject have managed.

There are interviews with many of the experts who are researching the settlement age in Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland, and Brown spends a summer working on a dig in the far north of Iceland.

Brown is mainly interested in recreating women's lives - but this is extremely relevant, as the only export that the Icelanders had to trade for much-needed materials they couldn't get in Iceland, was wool cloth. Which was made by women.

Sometimes she waxes lyrical about imagining Gudrid in certain situations, but always makes it clear where she is letting her imagination go, then presents the evidence for why she started thinking this way.

I do recommend this book, even though her American inability to cope with the metric system (and assumption that all her readers are also thus limited) is annoying at times.

34. A Scandal in Bohemia and Other Stories by Arthur Conan Doyle

Prior to starting this round of re-reads (I read The Hound of the Baskervilles not too long ago), I last read the original Holmes stories at about the age of 12. As a result, they're a lot easier to read than I recalled!

The stories in this collection are simultaneously more and less engaging than I remembered. The writing is more interesting, as are the plots, but it's basically all about Holmes being all superior and talking down to everyone - not much to get to grips with at all.

I've got one more of these small collections left (the ones the Radio Times put out to coincide with the BBC's Sherlock reboot).
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24. The Conversion of Scandinavia by Anders Winroth

I got this for my birthday last year, but as it looked quite specialist I read The Hammer and the Cross and The Norsemen in the Viking Age first. It turns out I needn't have bothered because there's a good general introduction which actually takes up about half the book.

Thus, the answer to my original question, "is there really enough extant material to write a whole book about it?" is no.

There were things that I didn't already know in the general bits, most pertinently how much evidence there is for halls as described in Beowulf in the pre-Christian era.

The point of this book is that while some of the Vikings' neighbours, such as the Saxons, were forcibly converted, in Scandinavia the situation was reversed - when they travelled and raided into the rest of Europe, they saw how the more advanced, and wealthier, states were set up and that this was based around Christianity, so it was more a case of wanting to convert so as to join the mainstream of European states - The Scandinavian countries start to look something like states rather than chiefdoms about the time they start to convert.

There's also a good analysis of how we can't trust most of the conversion narrative that does exist.

So, not as exciting as I was hoping, but a really good solid book on the subject.

Note to self (again) - do not need *another* MA in Viking History and certainly do not need a PhD in said subject.
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61. The Norsemen in the Viking Age by Eric Christiansen

Or, everything you thought you knew about the subject - there's no contemporary evidence, it's all extrapolated from the later medieval Icelandic sagas, or by inferring parallels with other, better documented, Germanic groups. I was vaguely aware of this, but not to the degree or in such great detail.

The title makes it sound like a general, accessible work, as does the fact that it's part of a series called "The Peoples of Europe". This is Proper Academic History, outlining what we do and don't know, structured thematically rather than chronologically.

I was disappointed, but not entirely surprised to find that there were probably no berserkers amongst the pagan Vikings - there is only one, extremely dubious, contemporary reference, whereas one would think that they would have been mentioned by the chroniclers of the societies the northmen plundered, had they existed.

Ditto for the concept of sacral kingship. A professor I studied Middle English with at Leeds is mainly responsible for debunking that one. In the 90s, after I left. Apparently, the idea that Merovingian kingship was also sacral has been debunked too. The book that contains the relevant chapter costs £44 from Amazon. I must learn how interlibrary loan works.

The woman who turned me on to medieval studies in the first place when I was an undergraduate has a footnote!

When I did this for a living, my work was all about the Vikings in England and the Celtic world, but what got my attention now was their interactions at the other side of the Viking lands, with the emergent French and German societies. (Nope. Still can't get the least bit excited by the Rus and the Byzantine adventures). Repeat after me: You do *not* need another Masters degree, and you have never been able to grasp the way the Carolingian empire becomes France and Germany, and you can barely read modern German.

What I was mostly left with was wondering how the hell I ended up doing my PhD in something else altogether - I let getting put off by the Toronto programme put me off medieval history altogether.

So yes, it's hard, but much more interesting that what I thought we knew.

I got this from the library but I think I want my own copy, if only for plundering the bibliography. I am also tempted to explore some of the other books in the series.
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54. The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings by Robert Ferguson

I recently put a specialist academic textbook about the conversion of Scandinavia on my wish list, and someone bought it for me. At that point I realised I've probably forgotten most of what I knew about the basics, so I grabbed this from the library.

It's a pretty good general history, though it concentrated more on the Scandinavian contact with the outside world, where what I want to know is what was actually going on in the Nordic countries.

It answered some questions, though. Even at the level I was studying history, back in the early 90s, the reasons for the ferocity with which the Viking raiders treated the monastic communities of Europe were presented as unknown (aside from having figured out that that's where the Christians kept the good stuff), down to innate brutality. Ferguson posits that it was because Charlemagne and his successors had converted the Saxons and other German tribes with extreme prejudice and bloodshed. The refugees from these forced conversions made their way north. Thus the Viking raiders knew that their way of life was under threat from the church.

It also confirmed that one of the things I picked up as almost certainly wrong in Jared Diamond's Collapse is indeed wrong. Diamond proposes that one of the reasons for the failure of the Greenland colony (as if Black Death in Europe + Little Ice Age aren't enough) is that there is evidence they had a taboo against eating fish. Which makes NO SENSE whatsoever. According to Ferguson, evidence for consumption of fish has been found at archaeological investigations of the Greenland colony.


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