Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Rescuing Australia’s lost literary treasures

Have you ever gone looking for a particular book and discovered it can’t be found for love nor money?

If so, that’s no surprise. Most Australian books written are now out-of-print and unavailable to readers.

When books go out of print, authors usually have the right to reclaim their copyrights. But what then? Digitising books is expensive, and authors who make that investment and start selling them online (via Amazon, for example) often find that they sink without a trace.

And they can’t make them available in libraries, because those licensing arrangements are all built to go through publishers.

In a new collaboration between authors, libraries and researchers, we’re setting out to change all that.

Untapped: the Australian Literary Heritage Project is creating the infrastructure necessary to rescue Australia’s lost literary treasures and bring them properly back to life.

Working with a national team of library collections experts, we’re building a list of culturally-important lost books, then working with authors to digitise them, license them into libraries, and make them available for sale.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

The Long and Terrifying History of the Blood Libel

From The Nation - review by David Nirenberg:
Among the more unpleasant mythemes that one group of humans has devised about another is the blood libel: the claim that Jews murder Christian children, often around Easter, and use their blood in Passover rituals. Bits and pieces of this myth date back to ancient times. 

But the specific ingredients of the blood libel—innocent children murdered by conspiratorial Jews for blood rituals—were not baked into narrative until a child’s corpse was discovered in 12th century England and an enterprising monk accused the local Jewish community of murder. That first accusation sputtered out, but others soon followed in France and Germany that sometimes resulted in the execution of entire communities. With the invention of the printing press, the myth spread even more widely, throughout Eastern Europe and, with colonialism, into the Middle East and beyond. 

Magda Teter’s terrifying and learned new book, Blood Libel: On the Trail of an Antisemitic Myth, examines some of the long history of this pernicious idea. Her focus is firmly on the past and especially on the death in 1473 of one toddler, Simon of Trent. Teter sets out to document how the information about Simon’s death circulated during and after the trial and how it eventually flowed into Eastern Europe, where the myth put down some of its deepest and cruelest roots. She certainly succeeds in that historical task. While her claims are specific and circumspect, her book can be read more broadly as an allegory for our age, a story about how technological change, religious beliefs, struggles for power, and a politics of demonization can produce memes capable of transmitting the potential for violence across vast amounts of time and space.

read more here @ The Nation

Medieval mystery unlocked: The Light of Ages by Seb Falk

From Express:
THE MEDIEVAL knack for stories and myths has created some of the world's most sought after mysteries, pushing scores of the Middle Ages' most groundbreaking scientific achievements from the history books, an historian told Express.

Religious myths adorn the Medieval period. Things like the Shroud of Turin have captured the imaginations and speculation of academics, religious figures and history buffs the world over. Yet, it is so-called mysteries like the Shroud that, in fact, have quickly overshadowed the true pioneering discoveries that were characteristic of the Middle Ages, according to Dr Seb Falk, a Medieval historian at the University of Cambridge. Science boomed in the period that is generally accepted to run from the 5th to the 15th century.  There was a whole slew of inventions that we still use today.

From the Publisher:
A spellbinding journey through the life of an English monk, an age of discovery and the mysteries of the medieval mind

The Middle Ages were a time of wonder. They gave us the first universities, the first eyeglasses and the first mechanical clocks as medieval thinkers sought to understand the world around them, from the passing of the seasons to the stars in the sky. In this book, we walk the path of medieval science with a real-life guide, a fourteenth-century monk named John of Westwyk - inventor, astrologer, crusader - who was educated in England's grandest monastery and exiled to a clifftop priory. Following the traces of his life, we learn to see the natural world through Brother John's eyes: navigating by the stars, multiplying Roman numerals, curing disease and telling the time with an astrolabe. We travel the length and breadth of England, from Saint Albans to Tynemouth, and venture far beyond the shores of Britain. On our way, we encounter a remarkable cast of characters: the clock-building English abbot with leprosy, the French craftsman-turned-spy and the Persian polymath who founded the world's most advanced observatory.An enthralling story of the struggles and successes of an ordinary man and an extraordinary time, The Light Ages conjures up a vivid picture of the medieval world as we have never seen it before. 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Revew: The Quarant by Graham Bullen

The Quarant

Synopsis: January, 1348. They say bad things come in threes...

The day after an earthquake and tsunami have ravaged Venice, Malin Le Cordier, a successful English maritime trader, sails into the city with plans to mature a coup on behalf of Edward III and Genoa. His time? Short. His guilt? Strong. Keeping the coup a secret from those he loves most weighs heavy on his soul. But Venice is a place with secrets and revenge flows through the city like its canals. For his sake and those he is bound to, it is best he learn to navigate it. And quickly.

Unbeknownst to Malin, there is someone powerful in the city who seeks revenge on Edward III on behalf of his family. Well-situated, he operates under covert circumstances, monitoring Malin’s every move - and playing his own long game, merely waiting for the perfect time to strike.

Combining greed and guilt, revenge and undeclared love, this is one trip that Malin may not live to regret.

Venice to the 14th Century. 
From the time of her 5th century foundation on Torcello, Venice has been unique - a small self-governing community of refugees, growing rich on its own audacious merits. In an attempt to preserve its republican identity, reforms were put in place to ensure that the position of the doge (who holds office until death) does not devolve into a hereditary signore. From the 11th century, the government of Venice and its colonies is removed from the sole personal responsibility of the doge and is transferred into the hands of powerful councils. The supreme body is the Great Council of 45 members, with ultimate responsibility for state affairs. On day-to-day matters an executive Minor Council of six members is appointed to guide the doge. Over the years Venice's councils grow and proliferate.

During the 13th century the Great Council expands from 45 members to 60 and then 100. A new Council of Forty is added at some time before 1223, followed by another body of 60 members with special responsibility for financial affairs; this is the Consiglio dei Rogati, known also as the Senate. A Council of Ten is added in 1310, to check on everybody else.  Though richly attired and publicly honoured, the Doge is essentially a powerless figurehead. The system is brilliantly devised to preserve the status quo in two ways - preventing the present doge's family from acquiring power and preventing the wider group of patrician families from losing it.

The doge is not allowed to engage in trade or any financial activity. No member of his family may hold office in government or serve on the councils. Safeguards are in place to prevent an election being rigged (the final group of electors is chosen by lot). Similarly stringent measures are introduced to prevent outsiders getting in. Between 1290 and 1300 the so-called 'closing of the Great Council' limits membership to those families which have provided members in the past. Oligarchy is thus enshrined, in a system which survived until the French Revolution. 

With a greater increase in trade, travel and pilgrimage to the eastern Mediterranean, Venice had the skills to provide the transport and already established trade concessions.  However, there is soon a strong rivalry from two other great maritime communes, Genoa and Pisa.  Both cities subsequently develop extensive trade in the western Mediterranean. Genoa also plays a large part in the crusades, establishing strong trading links in the eastern Mediterranean and coming into direct competition with Venice. Warfare between these two Italian city states is long and intermittent, with Venice by no means always the stronger - until the issue is finally resolved in 1380 at Chioggia when Venice finally defeats Genoa and becomes the undisputed maritime power in eastern waters.

The Black Death.
Plague was reportedly first introduced to Europe via Genoese traders from their port city of Kaffa in the Crimea in 1347. As the disease took hold, Genoese traders fled across the Black Sea to Constantinople, Carried by twelve Genoese galleys, plague arrived by ship in Sicily in October 1347; the disease spread rapidly all over the island. Galleys from Kaffa reached Genoa and Venice in January 1348 with devasting effect, spreading across Europe and into Scandinavia by 1350, and finally Russia in 1351. The disease spread so rapidly that before any physicians or government authorities had time to reflect upon its origins, about a third of the European population had already perished. Within two years (1348-1439), plague had spread throughout the Islamic world, from Arabia across North Africa.

A merchant ship from Dieppe arrives in Venice after a devastating earthquake and tsunami have struck the city.  On board, a man with an agenda known only to a few.  We follow this merchant, Malin Le Cordier, as he and his associates play a deadly political game with La Serenissima - the price of failure being exceedingly high, the chance of betrayal overwhelming. 

The story evolves over a period of forty days - the Quarant - or the period of time a merchant vessel arriving in Venice will spend in quarantine. We accompany the main characters through the highs and lows of their conspiracy, which culminates in the final, thrilling betrayal. 

Bullen's attention to detail in describing both the physical and political landscape is superb, and we experience the sense of urgency as the characters do as we are propelled towards zero hour. 

The characters represent the medieval melting-pot that was Venice.  We have Malin and Symon, Bourchier and Mainard from England (and Scotland); the native Venetians; Florentine spies, and German mercenaries. Yet it is with Malin that the reader will find themselves centred.  The conspirators are akin to the spoked wheel - Malin is the hub from which all others - the radiating rods - are connected.

The roles and motivations of those involved in the conspiracy is gradually revealed, as plans coalesce, and the danger of discovery becomes greater every day.  The reader finds their own pulse racing as events take a turn, this way and that.

Venice is a city run on secrets - and I have provided some links below for further exploration into England's dealings with Venice, espionage and diplomatic relations, and well as some other themes that are running through the narrative.

This is period of history is one in which I am fairly well read and it was highly enjoyable to read a thrilling (fictional) account set in medieval Venice, with quite a decent dose of authenticity.

further reading:
- The Economic History of Venice
- Secret Venice: The Council of Ten and Medieval Espionage
- Calendar of State Papers Relating To English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, Volume 1, 1202-1509
- Hanseatic League
- Venice & Its Minorities
- Battle of Dupplin Moor
- Plague In Venice

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Review: The Syndicate Six Murder by Geoffrey Osborne

The Syndicate Six Murder

Synopsis: A Jacobean mansion. A body in a chest.

Detective Superintendent Ralph Blade never liked Detective Harold Ashington. These two men had history. Ashington never forgave Blade for marrying his former girlfriend, Julie, and he was convinced the Blades’ son was his own.

Now Ashington is dead, murdered at the world-famous Police Staff College in the heart of rural Hampshire. And Julie can’t explain why she had planned to meet him on the night he died. Has a forgotten love triangle turned deadly?

But Ashington was a bully and a blackmailer, and widely disliked. There are plenty of other suspects — and all of them are either senior police officers or closely connected to the force. Then Blade’s prime suspect and one of his team are brutally attacked and left for dead.  Can Blade and his new second-in-command Detective Dorothy Fraser uncover who has motive, means and opportunity?

A pacey murder mystery set in a Police Training College where the victim, the suspects, and the investigators are all police officers. What could possibly go wrong!

Though by (my) normal standards this is a short book at only 164 pages, it feels much longer. The chapters themselves are not overly long though there is much to be gleaned from each.

I enjoyed the storyline and the fact that the author used a real location and object in which to set his crime. Bramshill was a world-famous Police Staff College situated in north-east Hampshire.  It laid claim to a large country estate, including a lake, and the Jacobean mansion where the recruits trained.

It is into this setting that we follow DS Ralph Blade and his team as they investigate the murder of a man for whom many will not shed a tear for the victim, Chief Superintendent Harold Ashington of Scotland Yard, was a truly despicable man, and as such, there is an over abundance of suspects and motives that need to be investigated. Chief among the list of suspects with a suitable motive is DS Blade and his family and for Blade, the motive, long thought buried in the past, surfaces and his family is drawn in. But Blade is not the only credible suspect - there are others, many others, including colleagues and the victim's own wife!

As with all police procedurals, the build up is slow and steady as we tag along with the investigating officers until all is ready to be revealed.

Review: Easy Motion Tourist by Leye Adenle

Easy Motion TouristSynopsis: Easy Motion Tourist is a compelling crime novel set in contemporary Lagos. It features Guy Collins, a British hack who stumbles by chance into the murky underworld of the city. A woman's mutilated body is discarded by the side of a club near one of the main hotels in Victoria Island. Collins, a bystander, is picked up by the police as a potential suspect. After experiencing the unpleasant realities of a Nigerian police cell, he is rescued by Amaka, a Pam Grier-esque Blaxploitation heroine with a saintly streak. As Collins discovers more of the darker aspects of what makes Lagos tick - including the clandestine trade in organs - he also falls slowly for Amaka. Little do they realise how the body parts business is wrapped up in the power and politics of the city. The novel features a motley cast of supporting characters, including a memorable duo of low-level Lagos gangsters, Knockout and Go-Slow. Easy Motion Tourist pulsates with the rhythms of Lagos, reeks of its open drains, and entertains from beginning to end. A modern thriller featuring a strong female protagonist, prepared to take on the Nigerian criminal world on her own.

This is Nigerian noir fiction in all its gory glory.

On his first night in Lagos, a British journalist ostensibly in the country to report on the forthcoming presidential elections finds himself in the midst of a crime scene - the brutal murder and mutilation of a young woman. Swept up by the local police, Guy Collins laments as he finds himself in a car with me who hadn't identified themselves as police nor read him his rights; he in turn had not asked for ID; and he was being driven who knows where and no-one knew he had been taken.

Enter one tough and determined woman, Amaka.  Who she actually is and what her role is we the reader are never quite sure of - suffice to say this is elaborated upon as we delve further into the murky Lagos underbelly where everyone is packing heat; sex and drugs are currency; corruption is rife and accepted; life is brutal and cheap; and its all about image and the perception of power - from gang members, to police to politicians.

This will certainly not be to everyone's liking but if you are interested in differing views of the crime genre then this would be a good starting point.  Looking forward to the next book - When Trouble Sleeps.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

'Queen of crime' Agatha Christie goes to Bollywood

From BBC News:
A murder takes place in a misty Himalayan hill resort. As the whodunit unfolds, a couple almost unwittingly begin sleuthing to get to the bottom of the crime. And the story is based on a novel by the world's most celebrated crime writer.

That's all Indian filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj is willing to reveal now about his upcoming film, based on a novel by "queen of crime" Agatha Christie.

It is also the first time that Agatha Christie Limited, which looks after the author's estate, has franchised her stories to an Indian filmmaker. "We have done many adaptations across the world and every country brings its own flavour to the piece. I have no doubt that this will be the same," James Prichard, Christie's great grandson and the CEO of the estate, told me.

Bollywood's Christie would not be the first adaptation to have music and dance. An episode of a series in French - Les Petits Meurtres d'Agatha Christie - had "many musical numbers," says Prichard. "So never say never."

It's possibly apt that Christie is going to Bollywood in the 100th year since the publication of her first novel The Mysterious Affairs at Styles. Since then, an astonishing two billion copies of her books have sold in more than 100 languages, including English, according to her estate. Last year alone, her books sold more than two million copies. They have been adapted by television, film and theatre, a testament to their timelessness.

read more here @ BBC News

see also
- Bollywood Crime Thrillers Based On Agatha Christie Novels
- Bollywood Adaptions of Agatha Christie
- 6 Indian Movies Inspired By Agatha Christie

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Siege Warfare during the Crusades by Michael Fulton

Sieges played a key role in the crusades, but they tend to be overshadowed by the famous battles fought between the Franks and the Muslims, and no detailed study of the subject has been published in recent times. 

He considers the history of siege warfare in the Holy Land from every angle – the tactics and technology, the fortifications, the composition of the opposing armies, and the ways in which sieges shaped Frankish and Muslim strategy at each stage of the conflict. The differences and similarities between the Eastern and Western traditions are explored, as is the impact of the shifting balance of power in the region.

The conclusions may surprise some readers. Neither the Muslims nor the Franks possessed a marked advantage in siege technology or tactics, their fortifications reflected different purposes and an evolving political environment and, although there were improvements in technologies and fortifications, the essence of siege warfare remained relatively consistent.

read review by Peter Purton @ De Re Militari

A Few Thoughts and Speculations on the State of Irish Crime Fiction

From CrimeReads:
Generally speaking, while American mystery writers tend to make the Irish lists on a regular basis, British ones do not. We can speculate on the reasons, among which may be a certain unconscious Irish resistance, based on our complicated history with our nearest geographical neighbour, to embracing British police officers—even fictional ones—as entirely trustworthy figures when it comes to issues of law and justice. Escapism may also play a part, Britain being rather too close, and too familiar, to permit it.

The model of Irish mystery fiction that has emerged in recent years is almost entirely female. I think I may be the only Irish male mystery writer to make the Irish bestseller lists, in part because I’ve been knocking around for a while, but also, perhaps, because I don’t write about Ireland.

read more here from author John ConnollyCrimeReads