Tea & Opium – Recent Reads

Tea & Opium - smaller

 

My passions – tea and historical fiction (not opium!) – recently collided in the following two books:

 

For All the Tea in China – How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History – by Sarah Rose – Non-fiction

 

And,

 

Sea of Poppies – by Amitav Ghosh – Fiction

 

I had chosen the tea history because of my general love for the drink and growing curiosity about its history and transport.

 

Sea of Poppies was on my radar because of my constant search for historical fiction set off the beaten path and especially stories by non-western writers.

 

So, what do these books have in common?

 

Colonialism, international trade and the early effects of globalism.

 

More specifically, they deal with two of the three sides of the East India Company’s trading triangle: producing opium in India, trading opium for tea in China and transporting tea across the world to the exploding tea market in Britain.

 

For All the Tea in China tracks botanist Robert Fortune’s efforts to steal tens of thousands of tea plants and seeds from China and set up a competitive market in the Himalayas – all to profit the East India Company.

 

I have long loved Victorian travelogues. I used to scour the shelves at MacKay’s in Knoxville for every book pertaining to Central Asia and the Great Game. Sarah Rose’s summation of Fortune’s journey makes me want to find his writings and read them for myself. However, in these journals, we rarely see the consequences these “adventures” have on the nationals – either as individuals or as communities.

 

Sea of Poppies – written from both Indian and colonists’ points of view – shows us the trauma of the populace whose subsistence farms were turned into poppy fields. Over time, the farmers’ indebtedness to the Company forced many into impoverished dependency and some to emigration as indentured servants.

 

One man’s adventure is another’s demise.

 

You can read the reviews for:

 

For All the Tea in China – How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History – by Sarah Rose – Non-fiction – here and here.

 

And,

 

Sea of Poppies – by Amitav Ghosh – Fiction – here and here.

 

 

PS/Update: I recently stumbled upon an article from the New York Times that mentions Fortune’s brazen theft but focuses on the efforts to expand tea production from Darjeeling to Nepal. Enjoy!

Now to make another cuppa…

The Conqueror Series by Conn Iggulden

conn iggulden - conqueror series - small

As you can see from the image, I have four of the five books in this series. I do hope to catch up with the last one: Conqueror.

It has been several years since I read these stories but sometimes distance strengthens impressions.

Wolf of The Plains is by far the most memorable. When pondering character development or the influence of setting on psyche, this book often comes to mind. Iggulden immerses us into the life of a Mongol boy navigating a brutal cultural and natural environment. We walk alongside him while he establishes himself as the supreme leader of all who encounter him – starting with his own brothers. From a childhood of loss and hardship emerges the man who will conquer the world.

The series’ subplot – Genghis’ relationship with his son Joshi – is a tragedy often played out in the lives of great men. Unsure if Joshi is his own blood, Genghis never completely accepts him. (Genghis’ wife is raped at around the time of Joshi’s conception). Also, Genghis for too long delays rolling authority to his sons – clinging instead to absolute power – resulting in divisions and strife. In this I am reminded of Sharon Kay Penmen’s portrayal of Henry II, his family’s dysfunction and the ensuing fallout so brilliantly dramatized in her Plantagenet series. Both are examples of powerful leaders unable to relinquish control to the next generation.

Highly recommended for historical immersion, world/culture building, action/adventure.

It can find starred Reviews for these books on Amazon and Goodreads:

Wolf of the Plains: here & here.

Lords of the Bow: here & here.

Bones of the Hills: here & here.

Empire of Silver: here & here.

Conqueror: here & here.

 

Fiction from Ethiopia

Been meaning to add this here:

From a blog I follow: semper aliquid novi africam adferre, – a post with A link to an article from The Guardian listing new fiction from Ethiopia.

Two novels and a memoir – all three set in 20th Century Ethiopia from the late 1950s through late 1970s.

I know it’s a stretch to call it “historical” fiction, but so much has changed since these events, what could be better than fiction written by the people who lived through the period?

Also, at the bottom of that Guardian article – you can find links to other non-western Algeria, Sudan, Haiti and China.

Clicking those links will bring you to yet other lists, many of them including historical fiction offerings.

Thoughts on Colin Falconer’s Silk Road

Silk Road - Colin Falconer

WARNING: SPOILERS

Modern Sensibilities: One of the challenges of writing historical fiction is balancing the values of the reader with the worldview of characters from a distant time/place. The writer must provide the modern audience with someone to identify with even when the context is wholly other.

Colin Falconer’s Silk Road spans the swath of geography from the Holy Land to Central Asia in 1260 AD. Writing from this distance in time and culture presents a greater than usual challenge to bridge the gap between story context and the reader.

Falconer does this by creating a female character, Khutelun, with the skills, spunk and father’s indulgence to have the freedom to live as a man – allowing for adventures and encouraging her natural leadership. This is believable because we know that Mongol women did have more clout than their western sisters at the time.

Falconer also creates a main character, Josseran Sarrazini, a Templar knight, who begins to question his Christian heritage. And, William, a Dominican friar, who represents every despicable characteristic of religious fanatics. This juxtaposition of an open-minded man who finally casts off all faith and the Evil EthnocentricCleric who never changes, seems crafted to appeal to the modern reader’s freedom of thought and to encourage the gleeful derision of all things terrible about organized religion.

I have two problems:

1) The drastic final action of the Templar doesn’t ring true. Of course, as a believer, I would say this. But I also assert so as an intelligent reader. In 1260 AD, the act of completely turning one’s back on faith, and doing what he finally does, would have been terrifying. (And I won’t even tell you what he finally does as it would be an extreme spoiler.)

Of course, it is the writer’s freedom to do as he wishes, but it felt like a wink at the politically correct modern world.

2) Meanwhile, William, the Despicable Cleric, never learns, never grows. I admit there were moments when Falconer tried hard to humanize him; make us think William might improve, if only a little. Was that an attempt to forestall criticism of caricature? Or provide an honest picture of personal enigma? In the end, this character goes nowhere.

Again, it’s the writer’s freedom to do as he wishes, but it was tiresome. Okay, we get it – Evil Monk. Been Done To Death.

More Nit-Picking:

The book is slow at times if you want all action. But if you are reading Silk Road because of an interest in the region, you’ll enjoy the descriptions even if you find yourself skimming through some of it as I did.

And, the editing is appalling. How did this happen?

On the Other Hand:

Despite my complaints, Colin Falconer has a new fan. He is a wonderful storyteller and I will definitely read more of his work. I crave well researched high adventure stories in places beyond the standard fare. This is the kind of book I love. This is the kind of book I want to write. I will forgive all for more of this. Falconer sweeps you along on roads far beyond the beaten path and immerses you into another world.

The good news is: Colin Falconer has written 40+ books. I will look for others set in times/places that appeal to me. Lot’s to choose from. It will be interesting to compare the story and editing qualities of subsequent reads with my Silk Road experience.

In the meantime, I hope Mr. Falconer will slow down enough to do some serious quality control on the editing. Maybe his production schedule is coming at too great a sacrifice.

Recommended: For action & adventure set in far off lands

Amazon reviews here.

Goodreads Reviews here.

Why I don’t write starred reviews here.

Strange Gods – Annamaria Alfieri

Strange Gods by Annamaria Alfieri

Strange Gods by Annamaria Alfieri

I recently enjoyed Annamaria Alfieri’s latest historical murder mystery: Strange Gods.

Set in 1911 British East Africa, a murder entangles a cross-section of expatriate and local characters into a complex but well constructed whodunit. And we get a love story as a bonus. Beyond the murder mystery and romance, Ms. Alfieri also illustrates the consequences of universal social ills and the challenges of those who must navigate through them.

I will leave the specifics for you to discover since I do not wish to slip into spoilers.

But, if you ask me, this book cries out to be expanded to film. Think of the scenery! The costumes! The culture and character contrasts! The discovery of dark secrets and passions! This could be both grand entertainment and worthy of critical acclaim.

Wouldn’t it be great to see some serious money poured into this project rather than another Transformers rehash?

Dare we hope?

When Ms. Alfieri has a break in her book promotion schedule and writing her next tale, maybe we can get her back here for another interview.

Have you read Strange Gods yet? Do you have any questions you would like me to ask of her? What do you think about putting it on the big screen?

In the meantime, I am observing certain recurring themes in my Long Ago & Far Away reading. I will explore those in a near-future post.

The History Of Byzantium Podcast

I’ve been meaning to start a Resources page for this blog and will do so tonight.

But first, I want to highlight The History of Byzantium Podcast as it is a rich source of information as well as entertainment for treadmill duty or long drives up I95. I am partial to it since the eastern provinces of the old Roman Empire are my current focus, but I am convinced any lover of history will find them fascinating.

The blog posts include imagery, links to maps and to the related Facebook and Twitter sites. A few episodes are for sale – $5.00 – in order for the podcast’s creator, Robin Pierson, to help fund his otherwise voluntary effort. At this writing, the collection is up to 42 podcasts, the last of which covers AD 606-608.

Mr. Pierson began this project with the intent of continuing the efforts of Mike Duncan’s, The History of Rome podcasts – which started in July 2007 and ran to 179 episodes! I have linked to the first post/podcast, so you can start at the beginning.

Both of these sites have links to bibliographies and additional history podcasts.

Please let me know if you enjoy them or if you have other resources for our new Resource Page.

Hooked on History

Two Men in Osh

Two Men in Osh, Kyrgyzstan – Copyright Lausanne Davis Carpenter

Most people can testify to at least one teacher who made an otherwise dreaded subject come alive. I had several excellent English teachers but already enjoyed literature and drama. History required a master storyteller. I’ve forgotten his name but he made American History sound like it had happened to him. Last week. He knew all these tidbits and side stories that were not in the text book. He transformed a dull, irrelevant topic into entertainment for junior high students. This miracle might qualify him for sainthood.

But my true love of history occurred much later. Why are so many of us hooked on history only after we reach adulthood? I think it is then that we ask new life questions. It’s no longer, “Why can’t I borrow the car?” but rather, “Why do people behave this way?” Or, for me, “What happened here?”

I became interested in Christian history around 1987. I was back to church after several years of distraction (college) and wanted to understand the development of my own traditions and theology. I’d been taught the Bible since I was a child but wondered how we got from those stories to the present. At the time, I was a temp word processor for a major corporation. Work was slow so I brought in reading material. On my desk sat, Here I Stand (a bio of Martin Luther), and a stack of Puritan history books. People kept asking me if I was taking a course. They were mystified when I confessed I was reading for pleasure.

My next phase came when I moved to London. Try to walk around London for a day and not long to spend the rest of your life exploring every layer of the past hidden in each cubic inch of that soil. So, for the next few years, I devoured British history. I lived in the East End surrounded by Bengali, Pakistani and Somali immigrants and I built deep friendships with many of the women. Over time I became fascinated with early Islamic history. I asked the same questions of Islam that I’d asked of my own faith – where did this come from? How did what I saw in 1990s London come from what happened in the seventh century Near and Middle East?

Meanwhile, I had been a painter, a theatre designer, and an inner-city community worker. The accessibility of London gave me opportunities to travel; Africa, Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the newly dismantled USSR – every location steeped in stories. Can you stand in the open air markets of Fez, Morocco or Osh, Kyrgyzstan without feeling you’ve just experienced time travel? Without imagining the sights and sounds of a thousand years? I found a new love for old travel books – stories of The Great Game and intrepid Victorian women – but writing, of any sort, was not on my radar.

Not yet.

Blog Launch: Historical Fiction Off the Beaten Path

The Vinoy - Venue

Venue for the Historical Novel Society’s 2013 Conference,
The Vinoy, St. Petersburg, FL

This summer I attended my first Historical Novel Society conference. The speakers and breakout sessions were great, the food was perfect, the venue stunning, but the best by far was each writer’s excitement for their projects – eyes lit up and hands in motion.

Most historical fiction is set in the United States or Western Europe but there are writers compelled to explore more obscure times and places. These are the people I gravitated towards – since I am doing the same. We have to build entire worlds using fragmented and vague historical records; often extrapolating based on resources from the nearest time or place even if hundreds of years or miles off our mark. All the while we know there is some specialist historian out there who will catch us out in some small (or large!) detail. Could anything be more daunting? Or exhilarating?

The three hour drive home allowed my brain to process a dozen fortuitous conversations. By the time I reached my door, this blog seemed the obvious response to my 48 hour conference experience.

Numerous blogs focus on general historical fiction and some have specific time/place specialties but I want this one to be a hub for readers and writers of historical fiction outside the usual settings. I hope to include the following:

  • Interviews with writers
  • News and observations relevant to our niche
  • A repository of resources, thought and discussion particular to writing about the Long Ago and Far Away.

I have discussed my vision with several other writers who are going off the beaten path and am looking forward to their involvement. One new friend is a writer of historical mysteries: Annamaria Alfieri. She is in the throws of launching her new book, Blood Tango. When she comes up for air I hope she will be the first interviewee for the site.

I hope you will visit often and join us on our journey to Long Ago and Far Away!

Hotel Provisions

Hotel Provisions for the Conference
And good for any other journey!