Saturday, 30 March 2013

These Bitter Times - THE COFFEE TRADER by David Liss

The Coffee Trader by David Liss
I waited a long time to read this book. It sat on my 'to read' list for a year or so and I took it off, put it back on, never quite sure if I wanted to fit it into my reading schedule.
While I am pleased to have finally conquered the book, finally got it read, I was bitterly disappointed by it.
I don't know if it was the great cover or not (as I have always regarded the cover of this edition as one of my favourites even before meeting the book in the flesh), but I really expected much more poetry in the writing style. A much better prose work offering than what I got.
Perhaps even more passion and animation in the writing too. 

And yet, having read this book as a Group Read with others, I discovered that not everyone felt the same as I about the boring nature of the book, so I certainly would not ever discourage anyone from reading it.
I did give it 3 stars of 5 and to me that means 'I liked it and nearly enjoyed it' which I kind of didn't so I should be giving it 2. However, after giving it much thought, I decided that 3 stars because I liked it enough to get through it and not give up on it. I found a story within its pages that was mildly entertaining. So 3 star it is.

The day I started this book I brewed myself a pot of coffee, wanting to make the reading experience broader than just the act of reading words on pages. And it worked for a while as the book gets off early with your protagonist, Miguel, a broke, womanising, sex obsessed (don't expect lots of sex scenes though, just references to women he sees and women he has 'done') trader being introduced to coffee for the first time.

It takes a while to come back to the Coffee as the story moves into character developments and the strange and the unexpected presence of a memoir called The Factual and Revealing Memoirs of Alonzo Alferonda.
 I was ambling along, quite liking the story early on. Getting my head into this Amsterdam world, when hold the bus, everything stops and the book completely changes style to include a first person narrative from the memoir mentioned above. I honestly think that if I had known they were coming I would have been better prepared and I would not have lost my connection with the book.

Not everyone has trouble with sudden changes like that. Where there is actually two books in the one. Others I read this book with did not have the issue I had and they admit to finding the Memoir was the best part of the book. Whereas I regarded them as the worst. They got in my way. Shattered the Amsterdam world I had been building in my head.

The book goes on to be full of bitter, twisted plots and back stabbing. Manipulations and ulterior motives. It all got a little much for me and I started craving some pleasantness. Some smiling faces and well meaning interactions. But that is not what this book is about.
Think a book full of Edmund Dantes in Count of Monte Cristo and you might be close to what was going on here. All the characters are plotting and planning and scheming.

But I guess when you have an environment where there is big overnight profit to be made. Where people can be filthy rich in a matter of days on the backs of others, you will always have this kind of atmosphere and they are atmospheres that I am not comfortable with.

I have to tell you not to base your choice to read The Coffee Trader off my opinion. People's opinions on this book are so diverse that I honestly believe that you must ignore others - to a certain degree - and try it for yourself with a mind totally unobstructed by other peoples opinions.
Which is how we should go into every book that we read, only where would be the fun in that!

- MM


Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Two From Two - THE COMING OF THE KING - M.C. Scott

The Coming of the King by M.C. Scott
This is Book Two in the fantastic historical fiction series Rome by M.C. Scott (aka Manda Scott).
The first book in the series, Rome: The Emperor's Spy, went down as the best historical fiction I read in 2012 and I think this one may challenge for my favourite historical fiction of 2013. It certainly will be hard to beat.

The series really started way back with the name Manda Scott (not M.C. Scott) and the book Boudica: Dreaming the Eagle.
This was a series that could be classed as historical fantasy more than historical fiction for all the dreaming and predictions and prophesying. I always tried to palm these dreaming sequences off as 'coincidence'. I wanted so badly to believe that the book was straight, non fantasy, historical fiction that I came up with all manner of rational explanation for the dreaming predictions and their supernatural climaxes. But it is hard to palm it all off. Try as I might.
The author is a disciple of Shamanic Dreaming and you must wade through it, thick as honey, if you plan on reading her Boudica series.

There were four books in that series. Boudica: Dreaming the EagleBoudica: Dreaming the Bull, Boudica: Dreaming the Hound and Boudica: Dreaming the Serpeant Spear and it is in these books that you will first meet Sebastos Pantera and his back story.
However, in my opinion, which is the opinion of someone who started the Boudica series but never finished it (it was the dreaming, I am too much of a cynic on that kind of thing), you do not have to read the Boudica series to follow and enjoy the authors new Rome series.

Both books, The Emperor's Spy and this one The Coming of the King, involve the charismatic character Sebastos Pantera 'The Leopard'. His history entrenched heavily within the Dreamers of Britain (the Boudica background I mentioned), he is haunted by a past that makes him both a ruthless, methodical killer and an emotionally wounded survivor. He balances them well and there is no doubt that his past has made him better at what he does.

In The Coming of the King we find Pantera, Mergus and Hypatia travelling to the far Reaches of the Roman Empire in the First Century AD. During the Reign of Emperor Nero.
They will find themselves following their elusive enemy to Judaea where the Hebrew Wars are brewing and some small catalyst, any small catalyst, will explode and engulf the towns of Jerusalem and Caesarea and possibly take our heroes with it. This time it will not only be by fire, this time it will be by the sword and the volatile politics that surround the sacred sites of Judaea.
There is no shortage of battles and exciting street fighting in The Coming of the King and, as with The Emperor's Spy, the characters are memorable and multifaceted.
She does good characters, Manda Scott, she is one of the best at that.

I must confess, The Emperor's Spy and The Coming of the King are perhaps an alternate history for some people. I do not know enough about the bible stories to know when the author is rewriting biblical history, so to me it just makes good historical fiction. But there will be readers who will be challenged negatively by the author having rewritten some of the story from the bible.
 Of course there will be devout followers of the bible stories who will enjoy the challenge too.
I will not go into it too much or it will ruin plot lines for you if you plan on starting this series.
It is also worth noting while dreaming and predictions are found in this series, they are mild enough that my penchant for rationalising is satisfied. I never felt these first two Rome books were fantasy.
I could explain the dreaming and predictions away on coincidence quite easily. Which makes me a happy cynic.

Just as I did with book one, I raced through this book. They are highly readable, highly addictive books and I cannot wait to read the third instalment, Rome: Eagle of the Twelfth and then the fourth book in the series Rome: The Art of War which is released March 28.
She has gone two from two so far. Fingers crossed the next book will make it three from three.

I am not sure what to expect from these two books (#3 & #4) as they seem to have left Pantera and gone down a different path.
I would hope Pantera is still in them as his story is far from wrapped up. If he is in them, I suspect it is not as a main character.  It does not truly matter to me though. I find that Scott is such a good writer that it does not put me off the series if the character is wholly a new one.
 I am sure she will entertain me no matter who he is.

- MM

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Into the Deep Blue Sea - The Antikythera Wreck

Into the deep blue sea she went, a ship, or maybe two, with similar cargo on a similar voyage, sunk, lost, forgotten. Over time she was to give up and slowly disintegrate and vanish. Leaving few of her timbers behind and spilling all that belonged to her across the rocky sea bed off the Greek Island of Antikythera. And why wouldn't she give up on us? For she was old. Ancient even. Her timbers worn and worried by the sea currents since the First Century BC. She could not hold out forever. Waiting for us to find her and take back her cargo. Yet it was the secrets of her cargo that have captured our imaginations.

Her mysterious clockwork mechanism known as the The Antikythera Mechanism, the peculiar bronze objects yet to reveal their true identity, the strange rough sphere's, like rocks tossed across the sea floor, containing fragments of metal that could indicate that they were once bronze.
Then there was her treasure. Jewellery, Amphora, statues, weapons, perhaps more precious today as artefacts than they were in the First century BC when they fell into darkness.

Her grave lays beneath what was, for many centuries, a busy shipping lane and yet the Antikythera wreck is strangely an isolated event. Unlike many shipping lanes that are wretched with reefs and cliffs and that have been used for a long period of time, not many wrecks haunt the sea bed with her.

The wreck was first discovered in the early 1900s (1900-1901) by Sponge Divers, assisted by the Royal Greek Navy, who wasted no time in lifting some of her treasures to the surface.

Then in 1976 Jacques Cousteau popped his head in whilst filming a documentary called Diving For Roman Plunder. But the site where Cousteau found his artefacts is 200 metres from where the newest, perhaps truer, site has been found by Aggeliki Simossi of Greece's Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities and Brendan Foley of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

In October 2012, this team did some dives in the area and using diver propelled vehicles strapped with High Resolution Video cameras they explored more ground than Cousteau or the sponge divers  and it was at the base of a steep underwater cliff, somewhere between 30 metres and 60 metres down, that they made their discoveries. The evidence of a ship wreck. Either the same one Jacques Cousteau had found, or, despite an Amphora making a dna match to amphora Cousteau found, potentially an entirely different wreck. The matching dna could mean that it is wreckage from the same ship, or perhaps from the same fleet or the same trader. 
Amoung their discoveries was a large lead anchor stock which may have indicated that the ship was sailing when it went down.
Later in 2013, they hope to return to the site full steam ahead. Loaded up with a better budget, bigger sponsors and better equipment, they will use metal detectors to survey the sediments in search of more metal and ceramic objects, and they will also do a full scientific excavation of the site. Cousteau found over two hundreds items in an excavation that was only a few metres square, so there is no telling what a large excavation project will turn up.

Theotokis Theodoulou examines the ship’s lead anchor stock,
about 1.4 metres long and weighing close to 200kg.
If you live in Greece or are nearby in April 2013, there will be a temporary exhibit of The Mechanisam and the Antikythera Shipwreck at the National Archaeological Museum. It is open from 6 April 2012 - 28 April 2013.
For the first time ever, ALL artefacts will be on display.
If you cannot make it, then the National Archaeological Museum in Greece hosts selected artefacts from the exhibition every month to feature online. Artefacts can be viewed here: Objects of the Month

The Museum states, in relation to the exhibition, that;

“The study of the cargo will deal with the circulation and trade in the East Mediterranean from the point of view of the aesthetic taste of the rising Roman elite in the end of the Hellenistic Era and the Rome’s democratic period.”
Sounds incredibly fascinating. You should check it out if you can.

- MM

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Where There's Life, There's Hope - IMPERIUM by Robert Harris

Imperium by Robert Harris
I have never really been all that interested in Roman political history. After all, I am barely interested in modern politics. This is why I have owned this book for a few years and have put off reading it. But, having now taken that step and read it, I should not have put it off so long.
The book is written in an endearing style and the word I often used while reading it was 'jolly'. It seemed the one word I could think of to encapsulate its feel. I do not mean comedic, or silly, or slapstick, I mean simply jolly. The longer version of that? A light hearted narration with much unintentional humour wrapped in its prose.

The narrator is Tiro. The private secretary of the famous orator, Cicero.
Tiro recounts his life from a young man to a great age as he served Cicero - not as a freeman but as his slave - and aided him in his passionate rise from Senator to...well...I can not really say can I? You may know the details of Cicero's rise, but many won't. Cicero's rise through the ranks of Roman political theatre is one you must experience freshly through the book alone, if you choose to read it. Let me just say that since he was not born to an Aristocratic family, his climb through the ranks was not an easy one. At times it seemed so fraught with failure that I came to find it amusing and would chuckle and roll my eyes and think "of course!" on many an occasion.

I felt the book was let down by it having been split into two very different halves. I was not expecting it and when Part One tied up and Part Two began I found myself feeling like I was starting a new book. This threw me and I could not recover.
I was so disappointed by the two very different Parts that I longed to give the book 3 stars to punish it. But how could I give 3 stars to a book that amused me as much as this one? Despite the Part Two not being as good as Part One (for my tastes), it was still entertaining enough to make me want to continue with the series. or perhaps it is meant to be a trilogy. I am not certain on that.
 I have been assured that the second book is even better and that is temptation enough for me!

4 out of 5 stars

- MM

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Zheng Ho, It's Off to Manda We Go

It is actually Zheng He not Zheng Ho, but it does not sound as catchy in the title!...we'll talk more on Zheng He in a moment. For now, picture yourself here...

Manda Bay, Africa
It is pretty isn't it? Azure blue waters, palm trees, pristine white beaches?  Hot sands and coral reefs? Sounds like a great place to go doesn't it? Well, in the early fifteenth century the Chinese thought so too, although it is not until now that we realise they had been there.

The island, Manda, is a part of the Lamu Archipelago, Kenya, and can be found approximately 320 kilometres (200 miles) north east of Mombasa. It has a colourful history which includes a role as a trading port from 200AD to 1430AD.
On the island of Manda in December 2012, and on the first day of excavations, a team of Archaeologists led by the University of Illinois in Chicago, discoverd a 600 year old coin. Likely worn on the belt, it is a lovely little coin of copper and silver with a square hole in the centre.
The clear and well preserved Chinese writing cast upon its surface declares it a coin of  Emperor Yongle, the third Emperor of the Ming Dynasty who is perhaps best known for beginning construction of The Forbidden City.
Considering its age and the climate it had lain hidden in all that time, it truly is surprising the condition is so good. After all, copper does not hold up well around alkalines (salt water) and acid. Elements found in abundance in environments such as Manda Island.

15th Century Chinese Coin Found on Manda
 This single coin, if proven authentic, could tell much about the history of the area. Unravelling the theories on Chinese connections to the Indian Ocean and the East Coast of Africa and what trading there was between China and these nations long before Europeans came on the scene.
The coin may also provide evidence that the famous Chinese Eunuch, Zheng He (sometimes also known as Cheng Ho) had been there in the early to mid Fifteenth century.

Admiral Zheng He, who commanded the Chinese Navy, had been on many voyages of discovery in the name of Emperor Yongle. It would be very illuminating for historians if he could be linked to Manda or proved that he had been there in person, but anyone following the story of this find will have to wait until they can finish the chemical analysis at The Field Museum in Chicago.  It is this analysis that will provide final details on this coins origins.

- MM

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Mines on Your Mind - The Mes Aynak Copper Mine

In Logar province, Afghanistan, approximately 25 miles south of Kabul lays Mes Aynak, an ancient Buddhist city doomed to vanish forever under a project touted as a magic bullet for the war torn economy of Afghanistan. It's ancient streets and buildings pushed aside as rubble for one of the largest copper mines in the world.

There is some good news for the site, however. In 2009 a deal was struck with archaeologist to excavate and preserve as much as they can before the Mine is operational. They were given $8 million from the World Bank (one of the supporters of the mine) and permission from the Afghanistan Ministry of Mines to dig the site until the miners move in.

Since that deal was struck there has been no definite end date for the excavation. There is still no sign of the associated mining infrastructure, such as power plants and smelters, and the archaeologist think they may have until 2016 before they need to give up the site.

The Buddhist city, with its many monasteries, workshops and ancient mine shafts constructed at an altitude of 8200 feet, high in the cold mountains of Afghanistan, Mes Aynak is an important study in the convergence of religion (Buddhism), early mining and Silk Road trading some time in the fifth to the late eighth centuries.

A Budshist stupa inside one of the monasteries
City neighbourhoods with roads and alleys, monasteries propped on hills or ridgelines overlooking the city, buildings, domed shrines (stupas), coins – more than 700 in one building – smelted from the very copper that will be this sites undoing, over 1000 sculptures which include Buddha statues taller than 12 feet, ancient manuscripts, ornate woodwork.  All are of immense value to an archaeologist or person interested in this areas history. And all needing to go before the window closes.
It is a massive task to excavate it all and an even harder task to remove it all to other sites - such as the Kabul Museum - but they will try. Even the stupa shrines with their domed roofs will be taken down and reassembled elsewhere in this desperate attempt to save and preserve this precious history in perpetuity.
Even though the site should be preserved as it is - perhaps even World Heritage Listed (since the history of Afghanistan has already been desecrated by the Taliban as they systematically destroyed sites like these all over the country, while other sites have been ransacked by relic hunters) - it only seems fitting that if it has to go it should go for this reason. It was copper that brought the people to this city. It was copper that brought trade to this site along the equally ancient Silk Road that connected China and India to the Mediterranean. It was copper mined here that created coins for this countries economy many hundreds of years ago.
Mes Aynak, poised for progress

- MM

So if the site at Mes Aynak has to move aside for progress, what better reason than this.
In a thousand or two thousand years, this new mine will become just one more page in the history of this area.
The natural resource will be scooped and blasted and sifted from the earth, the mine will run out of copper, the people will leave, the dust will settle, and the structures of its progress will fall to ruin .

 Just as the Buddhist site did at the end of the eight century.  Brushed aside by Father Time once more.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

The Lost Face of Princess Arsinöe IV

Is this the face of Cleopatra's half sister, Princess Arsinöe IV? Based on the bones of one of the most controversial archaeological finds in Egyptian history, some specialists claim that it is.

In 1926, archaeologists found a young woman's bones in a burial chamber beneath the ruins of an Octogon shaped structure under Ephesus. An ancient Greek city on the coast, in what is now western Turkey.

Those archaeologists, and many to follow, would claim that the bones belonged to Princess Arsinöe. The half sister of Cleopatra. Both fathered by Ptolemy XII Auletes, although possibly not by the same mother, the sister's split all allegiance during the clash of power between Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and her brother Ptolemy XII. Arsinöe fled to join the Egyptian Army and to help them wage war against Cleopatra and her Romans.

As we all know, they did not succeed. With Rome's help, Cleopatra was victorious over her brother and his allies and Arsinöe was taken captive and sent into exile to Ephesus.
Only, the half sister's existence would continue to plague Cleopatra and soon after Julius Caesar was assassinated, Cleopatra sent her lover Marc Antony to Ephesus to murder Arsinöe in 41BC.

As for the bones, found in the burial chamber beneath the elaborate Octogan shaped structure, it has been difficult to prove without doubt that they belonged to Arsinöe. Since they were found in 1926, they have disappeared, reappeared, and changed many hands, many times, making any dna potentially contaminated.

They have tried using all modern methods to get a clear identification of the bones, but so far it is to no avail.
It is hoped that whilst there exists no way of positively identifying the bones as Princess Arsinöe IV now that in the future perhaps, with new developments and new technologies, the scientists that strongly believe these bones belong to the murdered Princess, will finally get their proof.

For further details:

- MM