YOFR: A Book of Any Genre That Addresses Current Events

This month I got more bang for my buck by choosing one book that would actually fit on both of the lists on the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Reading Challenge. This month on the Year of Fun Reading Challenge (YOFR) I was supposed to read a book of any genre that addresses current events. But the book I chose, Company Town, by Madeleine Ashby, also would fit under the Reading for Growth Challenge, under this month’s category of a Genre I Usually Avoid, as it is science fiction. Although I can enjoy SF at times, it’s not one of my go-to genres.

However, Company Town is pretty soft science fiction, which is the way I like my SF, generally. So it’s not too far outside of my comfort zone.


I picked this book for a number of reasons. First of all, in my quest to try to read more Canadian spec-fic authors (sparked by my verrry slow Book Bingo challenge from last year), this one, shortlisted for CBC’s 2017 Canada Reads competition, fit that bill. Secondly, it’s speculative fiction. Thirdly, it addresses current events.

Sort of. Company Town is set in the near future, in a town located off the east coast of Canada called New Arcadia which has been completely bought out and taken over by an oil company, whose rigs provide the main source of wealth in the town. In fact, the rig pretty much IS the town. The protagonist is Go-Jung Hwa, the only person in New Arcadia who does not have any bio-engineered enhancements, and that makes her difficult for others with enhancements to see. This, along with her expertise in self-defence, comes in handy in her job as a security guard, and she is hired to protect the son of the multi-billionaire owner of the oil company that owns the town.

This was all I knew about the book before I read it. I don’t like to know too much about a book going in, which sometimes is not the best strategy. You can see that from how often I have been surprised by a book being YA when I wasn’t expecting it. This one, thankfully, is not.

I picked it because I thought it was going to explore the oil industry, and where it might be going in the future.  I live in Alberta, where the oil industry is one of our major sources of income, and where there is considerable debate about its merits. I thought this book might address that in an interesting, fictional way.

Well, not so much. The book doesn’t discuss the pros and cons of the oil industry or our reliance on fossil fuels (which I admit I was rather glad about) but it does address other current issues such as the place of technology in our lives and where it might be leading us. That threw me for a loop, but once I realized it wasn’t really about the oil industry at all I readjusted and quit trying to find that thread in it. The casual acceptance of the bio-enhancements portrayed in the book was certainly food for thought, and frighteningly very plausible.

The book also speaks to the power of big corporations and their hold on ordinary people. The portrayal of both the oil company which holds all the purse strings in the town and is playing fast and loose with the truth of what it is actually developing under the water and the invasiveness of the bio-enhancements which people add to themselves to “keep up with the Jones'” has a lot to say about the power of greed, unbridled capitalism, and the effects of those on ordinary people who just want a job to go to and to be successful in their lives.

The book doesn’t hit you over the head with these themes, though, which I appreciate. It is basically set up as a murder mystery, with Hwa trying to solve some unsettling murders which all seem to be related to a threat faced by her teenaged charge.

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the positive side, Ashby is a strong writer technically, and she had an interesting idea. I loved the Canadian setting, and the near-future, gritty,  cyber-punky feel to the book. I liked the main character for the most part. Even though she would definitely fall under the category of “warrior-chick” which I get so tired of, Ashby fleshed her out enough that she is interesting and relatable.

However I did struggle reading it at times. It always takes awhile to settle into the world of any fantasy or science fiction book, so I tried to ignore my niggling questions and confusion I felt at the beginning. But those questions kept popping up, and kept not being resolved, and it started to bug me the further into the book I got. The worst was the questions that surrounded Hwa. You learn early on that she has a “stain” on her face, and for some reason this makes her unsuitable for enhancements. I assume the author meant a port wine stain but wasn’t sure why this made her unsuitable, which wasn’t revealed until later when you realize her mother thought her ugly and unworthy of the expense of enhancement.

But along with the stain she has some kind of mysterious medical condition which causes seizures, and it seemed to be related to the stain on her face, or was it? Do port wine stains cause seizures? I didn’t think so but maybe they do? Or maybe this was unrelated to the stain but the way it was written made me think it was…and so you see I keep being confused about this point which kept throwing me out of the book.

The setting, the oil rig/town with the various towers was a bit unclear to me too. I had a hard time getting settled into the landscape of the book. Maybe it was just me.

I found the plot confusing at times, too. It’s basically a sci-fi murder mystery, which is fine. But there is also some romance thrown in, which is also fine, but her love interest, Daniel, seems a little too good to be true and their relationship is not really believable at times.

I think that qualifier, “at times” sums up the problems I was having with this book. It was uneven. Maybe trying to do too much? Some places the book snaps along, at others it meanders, trying to find its way. And at times Ashby resorts to stock characters to prop up plot failings, and it doesn’t work.

All these problems come into stark relief at the climax of the book, unfortunately.  I looked at the Goodreads reviews I saw others struggled with the ending too. I’m not exactly sure I understand the explanation of it all, to tell you the truth. It all felt a bit forced and out of left field.

So while I really wanted to love this book, I came away unsatisfied. It has potential, but I wish it had just a little more cohesion and a better ending.

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 5. Stellar idea and good writing, but plot needs work.


Unlocking the Word-Hoard, Pt 2

Last week on the blog I wrote about the scops, and their place in 7th century Britain. This week I wanted to touch on the gleemen, and to highlight one particular form of poetry they would use in their entertainment. Riddles, anyone?

To recap, last week I explained that the scop was the poet/singer that wrote poetry extolling the virtues and accomplishments of the king (mostly). He would generally be attached to one court, and not travel around too much.

The other entertainers, called gleemen, were closer to what we think of as the travelling minstrel, who would go from place to place and sing songs and recite poetry in exchange for gifts and presumably, shelter and food. These would generally not compose their own material, but would rely on the work of the scop for their poems and songs. Which was handy for the scop, as it provided a way for the renown of his king to be known far and wide. And his own renown as well, if the songs were popular.

I’m using the word “song” loosely. It’s hard to say exactly how these poems were performed. As I mentioned last week, they might have been recited with the strumming of the lyre used as emphasis in the background. Or, they could have been set to music. There is no musical notations surviving from this era so we really don’t know what it would have sounded like, sadly.

There were other instruments other than the lyre that both scops and gleemen could use, such as drums, horns, and whistles made out of bone or antlers. Other stringed instruments such as the harp, lute, and the early type of violin known as the rebec appeared later, in the 9th to 12th centuries.


This is an illustration from The Vespasian Psalter (prayer book, consisting of the book of Psalms), produced sometime in the second half of the 8th century AD. It adorns Psalm 27, and is meant to show King David playing his harp. It gives us a good look at the instruments of the day: the lyre, the bone whistles, and the horn. Image from wikiwand

It’s possible the scop would begin his career as a gleeman, travelling around and learning his trade, hoping to get good enough to attract the eye of a king or an up-and-coming war leader (who might possibly become king one day) and be invited to become his personal entertainer. He might also have a couple of other musicians travelling with him, but likely it would be just him. It would be easier for ordinary people to provide hospitality (i.e. food and drink) to just one person, rather than a group.

Gleemen, being travellers, would also spread news of what was going on in the kingdom. Most people did not travel much. It was too dangerous and difficult, and going any length of distance meant you had to somehow find food along the way, which was not easy. So having a travelling gleeman stop by your holding would have been a welcome diversion from the hardships of everyday life, both in terms of the entertainment he provided and the news he carried.

Part of that news, of course, would be the battles that the kings had taken part in. This is where the scop’s poems would come in handy. It’s much easier to remember poems than prose, which is why the battles were recounted that way. But there was another popular form of poem which were a type of riddle.

Here is an example, from the Exeter Book, a tenth century collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry, containing poems that dated from much earlier.

I saw a thing     in the dwellings of men
that feeds the cattle;     has many teeth.
The beak is useful to it;     it goes downwards,
ravages faithfully;     pulls homewards;
hunts along walls;     reaches for roots.
Always it finds them,     those which are not fast;
lets them, the beautiful,     when they are fast,
stand in quiet     in their proper places,
brightly shining,     growing, blooming.

Can you guess what the “thing” is? I’ll let you think about it for awhile.*

Here’s another one:

I am atheling’s     shoulder-companion,
a warrior’s comrade,     dear to my master,
a fellow of kings.     His fair-haired lady
sometimes will lay     her hand upon me,
a prince’s daughter,     noble though she be.
I have on my breast     what grew in the grove.
Sometimes I ride     on a proud steed
at the army’s head.     Hard is my tongue.
Often I bring     a reward for his words
to the singer after his song.     Good is my note,
and myself am dark-colored.     Say what my name is.

What do you think?**

Tolkien, himself an Anglo-Saxon scholar, used these types of riddles in the Lord of the Rings when Gollum bargains with Bilbo when Bilbo is seeking a way out of Gollum’s caverns.

Of course, Bilbo’s last riddle, “What do I have in my pocket?” is not one of these types of riddles. Bilbo cheated on that one, as Gollum rightly accuses him of doing. Good thing for Bilbo, though!

There are over ninety such riddles in the Exeter Book, covering all sorts of topics, but  much has been made of the eight which are the “off-colour” ones. The Anglo-Saxons apparently had a ribald sense of humour (same could be said of us, I suppose), and it shows in these riddles. Here’s an example.

I’m a wonderful thing,     a joy to women,
to neighbors useful.     I injure no one
who lives in a village     save only my slayer.
I stand up high     and steep over the bed;
underneath I’m shaggy.     Sometimes ventures
a young and handsome     peasant’s daughter,
a maiden proud,     to lay hold on me.
She seizes me, red,     plunders my head,
fixes on me fast,     feels straightway
what meeting me means     when she thus approaches,
a curly-haired woman.     Wet is that eye.

Er, yes. The answer, of course, is onion. What were you thinking?? Best appreciated in the company of warriors in the mead hall, drinking down the king’s fine ale, methinks.***

Here’s one spoken out loud in Anglo-Saxon, to give you a sense of how the language sounds, and shows you the use of word-puns in the riddle itself. Those Anglo-Saxons were clearly cheeky devils.

To be a person wandering around the country from holding to holding was not without danger. Outlaws along the roads could be a problem, as well as the inherent dangers of always being a stranger, without the backing of kith or kin if something goes wrong. It would have been a hard life in some ways, but it had it’s advantages. I’m sure that there were some who enjoyed this life on the road– heralded wherever he went, showered with gifts. He would have been seen as an exotic figure, knowledgable and mysterious, who has seen the world “out there” and lived to tell the tale, a friend of kings and commoners alike.

He held in his possession the vast treasures of the word-hoard, shared not only with the people of the times but with us today. They, and the scops, are romantic figures who come down to us from the mists of time in the very poems and songs they performed so long ago.

Wouldn’t you love to see one perform? I would. But I’m glad I don’t have to try to beat one in a riddle game!


**Horn (Made from an antlers, and often given to a scop in appreciation for his work)

***It’s not just the mead-hall that rang with song after a feast. This was a regular feature of most gatherings, it seemed,  Even in the monasteries the monks would pass around the lyre for each to sing for the other’s entertainment after a feast. We know this from Bede, who recounts the story of Caedemon, a lay brother at Whitby Abbey, who was so ashamed of his lack of ability to put words to music that he left a feast before he was put on the spot. During the night he had a vision from God in which he composed a hymn and in the morning he recounted the vision to the Abbess, Hild. Hild was so impressed she encouraged him to take his vows and to learn history and doctrine, which he subsequently turned into verse. He is the first poet whose name is recorded in English history.

Unlocking the Word-Hoard, Pt. 1

Back in the 7th century people  had pretty hard lives. Just the sheer work of survival–planting and harvesting crops, hunting, fishing, making and repairing clothes, defending your holding against wild animals or wild men–would daunt even the hardiest of souls among us.

But that’s not to say that people in the so-called Dark Ages didn’t have any opportunities or time for entertainment. I have blogged the various ways people would entertain themselves before but I wanted to return to that topic. I will be exploring in this post and innate least one more (maybe two more!) the specific form of entertainment of reciting poems and songs,  and the person who would provide it, known as the scop or gleeman.

In this post I will focus in on the scop. As I have said before, in looking at this era there is often heated debate about the veracity of one thing or another, and in the case of the scop  there is discussion among scholars as to whether or not such a figure actually existed. The argument goes that although the scop appears as a figure in Early Medieval poetry such as Beowulf,  that doesn’t necessarily mean that there were such people in real life who provided this type of entertainment in Anglo-Saxon Britain.

I only mention this to acknowledge the discussion. I’m going to proceed with the assumption that there were such people, and that they did exactly as they are depicted in the poems, that is, perform poetry and songs for people, in exchange for gifts or other benefits. It just makes logical sense to me that there were people who provided this function in society, especially since both the Germanic culture from which the Anglo-Saxons sprang and the Celtic culture they lived amongst in Britain included people who did just that.

I mentioned both scop and gleeman earlier. These are actually two different types of people who brought poetry and song to their communities. The scop was generally attached to one king’s court, and would act as not only an entertainer for the people generally, but more importantly would be the king’s personal propaganda machine. He would be the one who would compose poems and songs that would extol the strength and virtue of his king, which would help to spread the fame of that particular king to others. He might occasionally travel from one court to another but for the most part he would be permanently attached to one king.

Of course, kings die and circumstances change, and so even a permanent place in a king’s court did not necessarily mean that the scop‘s future was secured. There are a couple of poems that come to us in the Exeter Book that seem to address the fate of a scop who is looking for new employment, so to speak. The first one, called Deor’s Lament, includes these verses at the end:

This I must say for myself:
that for awhile I was the Heodeninga’s scop,
dear to my lord. My name was Deor.
For many winters I held a fine office,
faithfully serving a just lord. But now Heorrenda
a man skilful in songs, has received the estate
the protector of warriors promised me.

Another one, called Widsith, is an interesting one. It begins,

Widsith spoke, unlocked his word-hoard, he who had travelled most of all men through tribes and nations across the earth.

A scholarly article by Lisa M. Horton, called Singing the Story: Narrative Voice and the Old English Scop gives some fascinating information about scops in general and this poem in particular. She suggests this poem could be seen as a sort of resume of the scop’s accomplishments and skill set, perhaps giving a potential employer confidence that the person reciting it knows his stuff, so to speak.

The poem is about the travelling minstrel, Widsith, as seen from the opening lines above, and it goes on to recount the various places the scop has travelled to and the various kings he has served. It is quite apparent, however, that this poem is not meant to be factual. The poet says he was with Caesar, the Huns and Goths, the Angles, the Saxons, the Burgundians, the Irish, the Picts, the Israelites and Assyrians, and many, many others.* This is obviously not possible, but Horton postulates that the poem would demonstrate to potential employers (and to the listeners) that the scop has knowledge of all these kings and events and is therefore a worthy candidate for the position.

Scops used instruments in their performances. The main instrument seems to be the lyre, but harps and bone whistles were also used to make music. It’s unclear exactly how the poems and stories were performed. It’s possible the poems could have been sung, or perhaps recited, with the music as background music as the scop spoke.


A reconstruction of the lyre that was buried in the Sutton Hoo burial. It is part of the grave goods of the high-ranking nobleman or King of East Anglia who was  laid to rest there in the first part of the 7th century AD.  Image from Wikicommons

This shows another one of the values to Anglo-Saxon society of the scop. Aside from the entertainment they provided they held the history of their people (and of others) and were able to impart it to their society. The scops would recount the battles and accomplishments of their lords and in so doing would give an account to others of what was happening in the wider world, even if that account was often one-sided or slanted in favour of the current king.

The scop held quite a bit of power and prestige in the court. Think about it. If your only chance of having your renown known beyond your death was to have your deeds immortalized in a poem the scop would be reciting after you were gone, you had a pretty good incentive to both perform the heroic deeds that were worth recording and to also make sure the scop was well taken care of so he would be inclined to write favourably of you as well.

And there would be no cheating on your part. It seems likely that the scops were not just on the sidelines, writing their poems from the accounts from the warriors who were present at the various battles. They were first-hand observers and likely participants who would write from what they had seen and experienced themselves. So a warrior couldn’t just make up a mighty deed of valour to tell the scop later.

This is a video of someone playing a replica of the Sutton Hoo lyre. It can be played by strumming, as shown here. or by plucking the individual strings.  

In her article, Horton points out that the first line of the Widsith poem gives us a another clue to the importance of the scop and the poetry and songs he shared. The line contains the phrase, wordhord onleac, translated above as unlocked the word-hoard.   This compares the value of the words to come with the value of a treasure hoard.

In an oral society, where only a few could read, and there was not much to read even if you were one of the privileged elite, having someone who could share with you the treasures of new words, stories, poems, and songs, would be someone highly esteemed indeed.

Being a wordsmith myself, I love this picture of the hoard of words, highly sought after and liberally shared by those who carried them around.


* You can find the original poem and a modern English translation here, if you are interested.


Coming in Pt. 2 – a closer look at the gleeman, and the types of songs and poems he would provide.