Tea & Opium – Recent Reads

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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.

 

The Conqueror Series by Conn Iggulden

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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.

 

Should Writers Write Reviews?

I might have already mentioned – I do not intend to provide formal/starred book reviews on this blog. I discussed this decision with several other writers and we felt reviewing novels within our own genre could be awkward and is best left to others.

Since reviews are crucial to a book’s/writer’s success, I decided some time ago I would only review a novel if I could give the work at least four stars. Simply completing and making available a mediocre novel is a heroic feat. But a three star review could discourage and damage a writer even if they had made great strides with that piece. I don’t want to be the one to bring down someone who has worked so hard.

For me to write a five star review, a book must be not only well crafted, but also memorable. I have read many entertaining and near flawless books only to forget them the next day. A five star book had better stick with me for days after the final page.

Until starting this blog those were my personal guidelines. In an era of grade inflation I’m a bit stingy with my “A”s (5 stars!). And this shows the subjectivity of reviews – who am I to withhold a five star review from a perfect, forgettable beach read?

As I begin to write I am naturally looking more closely at what I read, the same way my theatrical self notices the lighting at a live performance. I am learning from others, both techniques and pitfalls. To write a balanced review seems even more difficult now. So I have decided to refrain completely from starred reviews here, on Amazon or Goodreads, etc. I will, however, share my response to and observations about writers, books or passages that I find noteworthy. I may also link to the reviews of others. There are plenty of places to find them.

While thinking about this problem I stumbled across the New York Times Bookends column, “Are Novelists Too Wary of Criticizing Other Novelists?”. In it Zoe Heller and Adam Kirsch describe the problem but also argue the benefits of novelists reviewing novels. I see their point but will stick with my decision and defer writing formal/starred reviews until such a time that I have earned a literary voice. (What a pleasant thought!)

I would love to hear how others handle this question. As a writer, are you comfortable writing Amazon, Goodreads, blog, etc. reviews of material in your own genre?