Sunday, 28 April 2013

We Meet At Last, Brother - A MORBID TASTE FOR BONES by Ellis Peters

A Morbid Taste For Bones by Ellis Peters
Ah ha! We meet at last Brother Cadfael. Pray tell, Brother, was it as boring for you as it was for me?
I have heard much about the Brother Cadfael series and heard plenty of good reports on the books, including the first book in the series. This one. A Morbid Taste For Bones.
Having been one of the only English speaking persons in the world to have never read any of the books or watched any of the tv shows I have had A Morbid Taste For Bones on my radar for a goodling amount of time. Always putting it off for whatever reason...I am not sure now what they were.

My Ellis Peters blooding was a successful one and came in the form of one of her historical fiction books written under her other pen name, Edith Pargeter, which I read last year. That was A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury. The memory of her incredible writing in that book still makes my toes curl to this day. I loved it. It became one of my all time favourite historical fiction books.

It was this lingering taste for the author's work that made me clear the schedule this month and finally read the first Cadfael. But next to the Classicist nature of A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury, I am afeared A Morbid Taste For Bones presents like the poor, country cousin.
The writing quality I recognised, although it was more Shakespearean than Classicist in this historical mystery.
For me there was no story of interest propped up by the intelligent writing. It took far too long to get to the crime and then I really couldn't care less who killed whom and why. The scenes kept reminding me of a drawn out Shakespearean play. Good for someone watching in the back seats of a dusty old theatre with their mouths agape, leaning forward, their fists clenched in anticipation of events, but for me as a reader, it was more like a two hour train ride. Very little bumps and very little entertainment unless I bring it myself.

This may seem sacrilegious to those who love these books and the tv series, but I could easily have given this book 2 stars instead of 3. If it were not for my immense admiration for the way Ellis Peters strings her old fashioned words together, I would not have been so kind to A Morbid Taste For Bones.

- MM

Friday, 26 April 2013

Author Robert Low - Why I Really Like His Books And Stuff

In recent days, Richard Lee from the Historical Novel SocietyJustin Lindsay (HNS member and fellow blogger) and myself (as a guest contributor), collaborated on an article for the Historical Novel Society.
It was timed to go out with the launch of Robert Low's  new book The Lion Rampant, which is the last book in the author's Kingdom Trilogy.

As a fan of Robert Low's books, Richard Lee asked me to write a few words on what it is exactly about Robert Low's books that makes me such a big fan.

And this is what I wrote.......

Many writers can do action adventure historical fiction. Many writers can even do action adventure historical fiction extremely well. But, in my experience, not all of them can do it with that unique blend of wordsmithing, research, passion and skill that Robert Low can. And I am not talking just a skill to write, a skill to draw characters in the mind and make them breathe and walk and talk and fight and hate, nor do I mean the skill to simply write a book full of words that make sense.
There is another skill at play in Robert Low's works that you can see if you think about it or perhaps you know it instinctively when you see it.
A skill one gets from having led a colourful life, meeting a real world full of colourful characters. As a career journalist for many decades - which included a stint reporting in that maelstrom of horror which was the Vietnam War - he has probably walked a thousand miles alongside a thousand different people, and for me as a reader, I responded to that life experience from the very first book I read of his, The Whale Road (Oathsworn #1) and it has been bringing me back to his books ever since.

There are always one or two characters in each of his books that lift off the page and stick with you. In the Oathsworn series, book one, they were Pinleg and Einar. In the trilogy, The Kingdom Trilogy, that character was Dog Boy. Each individual reader may find themselves attaching to different characters in the Oathsworn series and the Kingdom Trilogy, but I am confident one of them will stick and stay.
For me, the author is a larger than life character himself and I would not be surprised if he surrounds himself with larger than life characters in his personal life. So, of course, why would his book's characters not be as memorable and robust? I feel that to write his characters any other way would be to go against his grain.

You should always expect a passionate punch from his stories. They may not always go the way you want them. Characters will die when you least expect it, others will transform against your wishes, but they will always keep you on your toes and they are certainly not books that you will ever put aside and forget you have read.

For the full Historical Novel Society Article written in collaboration with those two gentlemen of the internet, Richard and Justin, go here:

Thanks to Richard Lee for giving me the nod on cross posting my section of the article to Ancient & Medieval Mayhem.

- MM

Monday, 22 April 2013

Rock and Roll Downunder - The Pilbara Petroglyphs

When people speak of Ancient History in a human context, many people automatically think of places such as Africa or the mythical Troy, the Ancient Greeks or perhaps the early tribes of Britain or Europe. Maybe even Buddhist temples or the Aztecs.

Not many of you would instantly think of Australia. Would that be true to say? And yet Australia holds bound by its bleached, golden beaches and its rocky unforgiving shores an abundance of evidence showing it to be the home of some of the worlds most ancient human settlement.
But they did not write the Illiad, and they did not create written history with the Icelandic Sagas and Beowulf. The Australian Aboriginal gave you something much harder to seek out. Something just as special and wonderous.
Sites of the Pilbara Rocks, Western Australia
Since they came to live on this environmentally diverse island, their words and histories have been written in secret and inhospitable places.
Their cultural histories are not written in a language you or I would define as words.
Their written language is manifested as figures and images. Things they have seen or want to show to others.
 Engraved or painted - with mineral paints such as ochre and ash - into the walls and stones and caves across this ancient land where only an experienced journeyor can stumble upon them or seek them out. They are ancient words in sacred places and this is probably why they have retained their unmarred beauty for tens of thousands of years and will continue to retain their beauty for tens of thousands more.
An example of these fascinating artworks and languages are the Petroglyphs of Western Australia and they can be found in the Pilbara region. Or known in more broad terms as the Burrup Peninsular and the Dampier Archipelago in Western Australia.  (see above map)

Here you will find the Pilbara Petroglyphs. Over a million engravings of animals of local provenance,
humans, human faces and other animals that have long gone from the area – gone due to extinction, or their species being isolated to other parts of the country many thousands of miles away eg the Tasmanian Tiger.

A Pilbara Petroglyph
While the engravings have not yet been precisely dated, scientists have used methods based on techniques including, reading radioactive isotope (which accumulates in the surfaces of rocks because of radiation from space), weathering of the stone, the style of the engravings and the land based animals depicted upon them which could have only been found in Australia during the last Ice Age. These factors combined, help to date them to as much as 30,000 years old. Which pre dates the last Ice Age of 22,000 years ago.

They have even proposed that some of the engravings could be as old as 60,000 years ago and the low rates of erosion and low rainfall in the area go a long way to assisting them in their dating analysis, but as yet this more ancient figure can not be emphatically proven.

These Pilbara Rocks are only one example of many Aboriginal artworks that date to tens of thousands of years ago. They are spread across the country in all States and Territories.

The Nawarla Gabarnmang cave Paintings
In another area of Australia, in a Northern Territory cave, are the magnificent Nawarla Gabarnmang paintings dating to at least 28,000 years old. Beautiful images depicting humans, animals and plants mostly made with mineral paints. The ash component of those paints being what can carbon date the images to nearly 30,000 years old.

So stow these facts away and next time someone mentions countries with a wealth of ancient history, you make me proud and tell them a thing or two about early human history in a part of the world that rarely comes to mind to most. The Australian Aboriginal. Who's history of settlement begins long before you may have imagined.

For more information on the Pilbara Petroglyphs:

- MM

Sunday, 21 April 2013

That Dusty Old Highway - SILK ROAD by Colin Falconer

SILK ROAD by Colin Falconer
These are the kinds of historical fiction books I dream of. Richly detailed, well researched, a natural harmony between dialogue and non dialogue - never being too much of one or the other - a lesson in history and some engaging characters thrown in. Oh, and I am a little partial to journey stories too. They are one of my favourite ways for an author to channel an historical adventure story.
These are all facets that I look for in an historical fiction and if they hit the right points of balance then when I come to sections that I may not like, and even the best books in the world have those, it does not ruin the book for me. And Silk Road, she was nearly a perfect girl. Nearly.

The description on the book makes one think that the book is going to be a love story. Between the Tatar princess Khutelun and the Templar Knight, Josseran Sarrazini, but it isn't, well, that is not entirely true, there is some love story in Silk Road although it is not dramatically present. Not a festival of murmured love words and swooning, which is a festival I do not want to buy a ticket to. It is background fodder concerning two adults who knew a dalliance was a waste of time due to their immensely disparate cultures.

As I say though, it was there, but it was background fodder. To my reading eyes the star of the show was the aggravating and annoying Dominican Friar, William. To me this felt like his story and not the story of Khutelun and Josseran. Others may have an alternate view on that, but to me it was all about him and his intractable belief that he could bring Christ to the barbarians. To the Khans of the Steppes. On his way to achieve that he makes life difficult for everyone and everything around him. The tribes, the individuals charged with escorting him, Khutelun, Josseran. He had no allies, only enemies on his pathway over the Roof of the World into the bosom of the worlds greatest Khans.
I found myself wanting often to see him get killed off as he was not a pleasant creature. While I cannot tell you if he is killed off or not, I must admit, he is integral to the story from the beginning and the source of as much humour (the laughing at him, not the laughing with him kind) as the angst.

The world Colin Falconer described here is now piled on top of impressions I already had of the Silk Road. He describes them magnificently and makes you feel and see what the characters feel and see. Falconer dealt with it as if he had been there himself, and I suppose maybe he has if he has travelled to these parts of Asia and the desert nations, for many of these very same markets and landscapes detailed in the book still exist to this day.

The one failing I had with the book was enough for me to give the book 4 stars out of 5. Although, more accurately, 4.5 stars out of 5. There was a section that I cannot go into without spoiling the story for you, where there was nothing happening for about a hundred pages of what was a 460 page book. No real plot or story evolved in this section and I got bored. Luckily the story got back on track and I was able to continue on and enjoy the book enough to feel comfortable in recommending it to others who like this era historical fiction.

Silk Road by Colin Falconer. If you like Templars, Mongols and desert. Think about it. It might be what you are looking for.
- MM

Monday, 15 April 2013

I Swear By It - CONSPIRACIES OF ROME by Richard Blake

Conspiracies of Rome by Richard Blake
This is one of those books that is not quite there and yet you instinctively know (as a reader of series') that it is the jumping off point for a potentially terrific series.
Think author Michael Jecks and his Knights Templar series as an example. That author himself is the first to admit that the debut book in his series is not the best he can do, it was only the best he could do at that time. It was a foundation book for a good series where the author matures as his skills mature. And that, I trust, is where this book by Richard Blake is placed. At the start line of a long journey. Fresh, enthusiastic, ready to run, but not quite honed and toned nor convincing enough to bring it home.

Clearly the author gave it all to his debut and I appreciate that. The descriptions of seventh century Rome were well done and I found myself transported easily to a city which had wearied itself in war and invasion, and consumed itself from the inside out with a parasitic political culture.

Our protagonist, Aelric, is a Briton, from Richborough. In his birthplace he was to find love in a childhood sweetheart and a friend in a priest from Ravenna, Maximin, who he served as an interpreter and general secretary. In a matter of moments he lost it all, his love, his home, his family and he fled Britain at the side of Maximin to the faded city of Rome. It was here that I felt the story finally became something worth knowing, although I did spend many a moment wondering where the story was going.
I had assumed, wrongly it would seem, by the bookcover and the book blurb, that the book would be action adventure, but this never eventuated. By about halfway through the book it surprised me by turning into a historical mystery. A most unexpected outcome.

The books biggest asset was the descriptive writing. Richard Blake is very good at creating environment and I enjoyed that immensely. He is an excellent writer in so many ways and I look forward to reading more by him.
The books biggest flaw was one of the reasons a severly downgrade this book from a 4 star to a 3. The obnoxious language used not only in dialogue, but in the narration was a difficult hurdle to clamber over and I never quite managed it.

There are swearwords and many a slang word that may alienate or befuddle a non Commonwealth reader (eg an American, Asian, or a European who's first language is not English, ). An example would be 'have a butchers'. To those familiar with rhyming slang (most English and countries such as Australia), we know this means 'look'. As in 'butcher's hook' rhymes with 'look', therefore to have a butchers means to have a look.

I must also mention another of these obnoxious language niggles of mine. In the early stages of the book especially, Aelric was much preoccupied with when and how often he wanted to or felt like having a sh#t. (the word used in the book, not my choice here).  It was too much, too often.
Swear words were used multiple times in dialogue and in many scenes became the common denominator. Replacing clever choices for dialogue with f#cking f#ckers and the like. I am no prude and I swear like a fishmonger's wife, but I can only handle a few well placed swear words in a book. This one was too thick with swearwords and it detracted from the story.
On this issue I am told by the author that later in the series swearing is less dominant and I am glad to know that, because if he had not told me that, then I probably would not have gone on with the series.

I will, however, absolutely go on with the series. I am keen to see where it goes as I had been on the look out for a protracted series to follow. This is a series I have opted to give a chance to and I am very selective when it comes to following a series, so that should tell you something of my feelings towards this book.

- MM

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Popping Pills With The Romans

I was recently reading a book (the historical fiction, Conspiracies of Rome by Richard Blake if you were to wonder) and early on in the book there were a few references to pills. Of the medicinal kind. 'Buying pills from the Apothecary'. ' Pills rattling in a metal pill box'.
This got me to thinking about pills in Ancient Rome. I had not come across any reference to them in an early Roman setting before, not in non fiction and not in fiction.  That is not to say that there are none, just none that I have come across or remember. And, as is the way with me when I sense there is something new for me to learn about periods of history that interest me, my mind was awash with questions.
What would these early examples be like?  Was there even such a thing or was it artistic license?  Would they be herbal lozenges or grassy wads that resembled rabbit droppings? Or balls that resembled compressed hashish? Or, in the case of opiates, white powder compacted and shaped like discs in a primitive pill press?

I did think of asking the author - who is an historian as well as an historical fiction writer - about pills in the Roman era and where had he gotten his information. Not in a 'prove it' kind of way, but out of curiousity so that I may get answers without having to do the leg work myself.
Before I had a chance to ask Richard Blake what he knew about pill making in Roman times, I stumbled, in a most serendipitous manner, across an article on an exciting Roman find that was made at the bottom of the ocean. A pill find would you believe! A Roman pill find!  The Pozzino Tablet find to be precise.

The tablets sealed into pyxis
Image source:
The pill was found in the wreck of a Roman shipping vessel (the Relitto del Pozzino) which sank around 120BCE off the coast of Tuscany.  Along with all the equally fascinating finds such as lamps from Asia Minor and glass cups from Palestine, was what remained of a 2000 year old Roman Doctor's medicine chest.

So how does a pill survive these conditions for 2000 years? There lay the miracle. The Medicine chest itself was in ruins, but despite its condition it was found to contain a surgical hook, a mortar, over 130 drug vials made of timber and some cylinders made of tin called pyxides. These pyxis were x-rayed and it was discovered that one held within it six flat medicinal lozenges. Or pills. Roman pills!  Grey and circular. Dry still after all this time and presenting an exciting opportunity to find out what kind of ingredients the Romans were incorporating into their pills during this era.
According to the Italian chemists charged with unravelling the mysteries of these Pyxis contents, this is what they found.

 "Hydrozincite and smithsonite were by far the most abundant ingredients of the Pozzino tablets, along with starch, animal and plant lipids, and pine resin. The composition and the form of the Pozzino tablets seem to indicate that they were used for ophthalmic purposes: the Latin name collyrium (eyewash) comes from the Greek name κoλλυ´ρα, which means “small round loaves.”
Source: The paper published by the Proceedings in the National Academy of Sciences - Ingredients of 2000 Year old Medicine

Image source:
In more simple terms that means zinc compounds, iron oxides, starch, animal and plant derived substances such as fats, beeswax, pine resins, oils (possibly olive oil)  and that the tablets purpose may have been to treat eye infections.
One of the pills also appeared to have the impression of fabric on its surface which indicates that it may have been kept wrapped in fine material to prevent it from degrading or falling apart.

All very fascinating to say the least and helps to answer some of my own personal queries on Roman Era pills, whilst yours have only just begun no doubt.  Happy, as always, to make my problems yours.

For further reading on the finds see: Pozzino ShipWreck: Ancient Medicine Ingredients Probed

- MM

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Joan of Arc? - Try The Heroines of Phuket

Have you ever been to Thailand? Been round the roundabout on Thepkasattri Road in Thalang? Glanced up at the two grey female figures and wondered what they are about?
Those two grey figures are the sisters Lady Chan and Lady Mook, the heroines of Phuket, and they are as important to the Thai culture as Joan of Arc is to European culture.

In 1785, Captain Light, the founder of the British colony at Penang, had his headquarters (an old French trading post) at Siam near Phuket. It was his location here that allowed him to vitally assist the Thai as he gave them enough advance warning when the Burmese army, who had been repelled twelve months earlier, arrived again with a large fleet, threatening an imminent invasion of Thailand.

He notified the authorities at Phuket, but the island's Governor had recently passed away and it was his widow Lady Chan and her sister Lady Mook who stepped up and took charge in his stead. Swiftly rallying the people to the island's defense.
They gathered what forces they could and then organised all the women to dress as men. It was this act that convinced the Burmese that the village was defended by an invincible army of soldiers and any attack would be futile. So, after a month long siege they withdrew their troops. Their invasion in tatters.

Lady Chan and Lady Mook became the Phuket Heroines. Honoured after the defeat of the Burmese invasion with the Royal titles of ThaoThepkasattri and Thao Sri Sunthorn by King Rama I (1736–1809) founder of the Chakri Dynasty.

Today, there stands this inspiring monument. The Phuket Heroine's Monument. Loved by the local people, they often come and say hello or goodbye there in the hopes that nothing bad will happen to them when they leave the island - as there is a small shrine at the base of the monument. Often students will come and say goodbye or ask for protection as they leave the island in search of a formal education.

Thai visitors from all around regard the monument as a must see location and a 'first stop' as they enter the city, where they will buy offerings from nearby stands or bring garlands of marigold flowers or incense sticks or even gold leaf (which is stuck to the smaller statues of the women) to leave on the shrine.

So next time you are in Thailand, or thinking of going, don't just jump in your tuk tuk and zip around on your way to a Hilton Hotel. Ask your driver to stop, buy an offering at one of the stands, and leave an offering of thanks to the Heroine's of Phuket. Because without these ladies quick thinking, there might very well have been an entirely different monument there this day. A monument to the many thousands of lives lost in a Burmese Invasion of Thailand.

- MM