Friday, June 29, 2018

How we discovered three poisonous books in our university library


Some may remember the deadly book of Aristotle that plays a vital part in the plot of Umberto Eco’s 1980 novel The Name of the Rose. Poisoned by a mad Benedictine monk, the book wreaks havoc in a 14th-century Italian monastery, killing all readers who happen to lick their fingers when turning the toxic pages. Could something like this happen in reality? Poisoning by books?

Our recent research indicates so. We found that three rare books on various historical topics in the University of Southern Denmark’s library collection contain large concentrations of arsenic on their covers. The books come from the 16th and 17th centuries.

The poisonous qualities of these books were detected by conducting a series of X-ray fluorescence analyses (micro-XRF). This technology displays the chemical spectrum of a material by analysing the characteristic “secondary” radiation that is emitted from the material during a high-energy X-ray bombardment. Micro-XRF technology is widely used within the fields of archaeology and art, when investigating the chemical elements of pottery and paintings, for example.


read more here @ The Conversation

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet

Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet: Women in Proverbs from Around the World by Mineke Schipper- ReviewStanley Coutinho reviews "Never Marry A Woman With Big Feet: Women in Proverbs from Around the World" by Mineke Schipper for Free Press Journal


The collection and study of proverbs is found as far back in history as the Sumerians, and later the Greeks and the Romans; let us not forget that the Bible brimming as it is with proverbs of various kinds, also has a Book of Proverbs; ancient Indian literature is a veritable treasure trove of wisdom – from, at least, the times of Vikramaditya (recall the wife of Varahamihir) and Thiruvalluvar. In the west, the names of Erasmus of Rotterdam with his Adagia and Otto Moll’s International Sprichwört Bibliographie stand out as the major works in compiling and commenting on proverbs handed down through the ages.

If we look back at how it all began, says Schipper, we find that sex and gender issues have been expressed in oral traditions…Such oral ‘wisdom’ represents a fascinating cultural history, and proverbs are a most telling part of that serial narrative. Based, therefore, on research of proverbs from 245 languages, the author goes on to analyse them on the basis of the specific references to women in proverbs.


Sunday, June 17, 2018

Review: Punishment by Scott J Holliday

Punishment (Detective Barnes, #1)
Science-fiction enters into the repertoire of crime fighting - and of punishing those who commit crime.

Detective John Barnes is tired, he drinks too much, he's violent, he's had enough and want to retire. Enter one serial killer who taunts him at every move, and drove his predecessor insane.

But the police have the technology to unlock the last thoughts and emotions of the victims, and thus find the clues to solving these murders. Now the police can literally visualise each crime scene as the last moments of the crime are played out. As we know, police and scene of crimes officers see so much brutality already, the introduction of this machine makes for a disturbing view of a kind of future policing and gives new meaning to the words "information overload".

Can Barnes find the killer before he too goes mad from all the voices in his head. You, the reader,  need to ask yourself ..... are you willing to take the ride?

Review: The Murder Pit by Mick Finlay

The Murder Pit (An Arrowood Mystery)
London 1896 - Barnett and Arrowood are detectives whom we first met the year before in Arrowood. In this installment, they are searching for a missing bride

But Arrowood and Barnett are no ordinary detectives - they are literally a second rate version of Holmes and Watson, whom Arrowood absolutely and most vocally, despises. These two take on the cases that Holmes won't touch (those of the common folk), but for them there is no glorious write up when the cases are solved, no public acclaim, no feting from royalty, and he is tired of Holmes getting the credit for solving his cases.

Arrowood is the anti-hero - the poor mans' Holmes - his counternance is not lean and agile, but overweight and lumpy.  He is at times thoroughly unlikeable and yet likeable, and sees himself as a "real" detective, rather than the show-pony Holmes. But you can't help feeling that anyone would appear second rate when Holmes is in his ascendancy, and Holmes does cast a very long shadow.  The character of Arrowood is, I guess, more human - he fits is with the gritty London backdrop; he is a fallible, obnoxious, working class man.

Having said that, our narrator Barnett (the trusty side-kick ala Watson), takes us through the case at hand - the search for the missing bride, Bridie, who is estranged from her parents - how hard can it be, surely back home in time for tea. However, just when you think there is resolution the story takes off again. Constant plot twists and turns keep you guessing to the end.

Note: that whilst this is fiction, it does paint a disturbing account of the treatment of those society had labelled "idiot", "imbecile" and "lunatic".

Extra Note: we could be seeing the likes of Arrowood and Barnett some time soon .... with a TV adaptation

read more here 
@ The Lit Bitch (review of Arrowood)
@ CRA (diary of a debut author)


Saturday, June 16, 2018

Review: Hollywood Hang Ten by Eve Goldberg

Hollywood Hang Ten
“Come to Los Angeles! The sun shines bright, the beaches are wide and inviting, and the orange groves stretch as far as the eye can see. There are jobs aplenty, and land is cheap. Every working man can have his own house, and inside every house, a happy, all-American family. You can have all this, and who knows...you could even be discovered, become a movie star... or at least see one.” (Danny DeVito, LA Confidential)


Whilst set in the early 1960s, a time of counterculture and revolution with regard to social norms and mores, a time of relaxation of social taboos especially relating to racism and sexism, this book definitely takes you back to the seedier side of the 1950s movie industry and the period just after the McCarthy witch-hunts that dominated Hollywood and elsewhere in America.

Naive wanna-be private eye Ryan Zorn embarks on a case (in his sick uncle's stead) to find a missing boy, before stumbling upon scandal, blackmail and murder, and someone intent on reviving long-dead secrets.

I get the impression that this could quite easily become a series.

read more about Hollywood in the 1950s & 1960s:


Review: A Cruel Necessity by LC Tyler

A Cruel Necessity (John Grey Historical Mystery, #1)
"... rebellion is ... a perfectly respectable family tradition ..."

Cromwellian England was, during the 1650s, a hot-bed of political intrigue and factionalism, with the execution of King Charles I still a sore-point for many. The government had been rocked by purges, and its sitting membership so reduced it became known as the "barebones parliament". Laws had been introduced to severely curtail and regulate people's behaviour; frivolity and enjoyment were frowned upon as the Puritans dominated all aspects - even Christmas was banned!

As thus we are introduced to our narrator, one John Grey, an idealist young lawyer in the reign of Cromwell, who finds himself in the middle of an investigation into a spy ring, known as the Sealed Knot. The more Grey delves, the more he finds himself on the wrong side of Cromwell's spy-master, John Thurloe, and before long, things are turned around - the hunter becomes the hunted.

This is a well told story with enough action, intrigue, double-dealing and, at times, humour, to keep the reader suitably entertained, and wondering down which path are they being led and to what conclusion.

The Queen's Embroiderer by Joan deJean

The Queen's EmbroidererGenevieve Valentine reviews "The Queen's Embroiderer" for NPR:  The brief introductory note to this book suggests she ran into a needle-scratch moment in the middle of more conventional research: Jean Magoulet's appointment as the Queen's Embroiderer, alongside a 1719 royal decree that his daughter Marie Louise be arrested and shipped to Louisiana. That was undoubtedly a surprising fate for the daughter of a royal appointee.


Then she found out Jean Magoulet had made the request himself.  Given the nature of the family, the story is often so dour that sometimes only the historical minutiae keep you going.  

But The Queen's Embroiderer lives largely in the place where petty men desperate to make themselves palatable to those in power poison their own family relationships, leverage a broken legal and government system, and leave a trail of trauma and destruction in their wake; a long shadow indeed.

see also author's page @ Simon & Schuster

'Benjamin Franklin' takes a more nuanced look at Franklin's views of God

Image result for benjamin franklin thomas kiddRandy Dontigo reviews for Christian Science MonitorBen Franklin seems like the rare founding father who'd actually be fun to hang around – at least if you weren't his wife.

Turns out this remarkable renaissance man – scientist, best-selling author, inventor, diplomat, political powerhouse – spent his lifetime on a complex journey of faith.

As historian Thomas S. Kidd reveals in Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father, Franklin started wrestling with religion and morality as a teenager and never stopped pondering the natures of God, humanity and universe.

Kidd vividly brings Franklin's spiritual quest to life throughout his book, and he provides a direct line from Franklin's beliefs to those we see around us today.

Monday, June 11, 2018

The Book Hunters of Katpadi: A Bibliomystery by Pradeep Sebastian

Review by Anupama Chandra for Free Press Journal:

36534976. sy475 Columnist Pradeep Sebastian’s first novel, also purportedly India’s first bibliomystery (meaning a mystery involving the world of books), ‘The Book Hunters of Katpadi’ shows immense promise. Built around the peaceful setting of a Chennai-based store specialising in rare or antiquarian books called Biblio, and its amicable owner Neelambari Adigal (Neela) and her young associate Kayalveli Anbuchelvan (Kayal), this mystery has schools, children’s books, rare volumes, book collectors and sellers, book auctions and libraries galore.

The sole focus of the book is everything that goes into making books and some writers. There is nothing to entice the readers and, more essential to this book, scant characterisation whatsoever of even the key sellers and collectors. Even after reading the book thoroughly, you don’t know what made Neela and Kayal fall in love with books in the first place. In the last few chapters, you do get a rare glimpse at Neela’s journey to becoming an antiquarian book lover. A simple question such as why does a book collector collect a certain book is not addressed.

Italy 1636 by Gregory Hanlon

From Amazon
Italy 1636 is one of the most closely-researched and detailed books on the operation of early modern armies anywhere, and is explicitly inspired by neo-Darwinian thinking. Taking the French and Savoyard invasion of Spanish Lombardy in 1636 as its specific example, it begins with the recruitment of the soldiers, the care and feeding of the armies and their horses, the impact of the invasion on civilians in the path of their advance, and the manner in which generals conducted their campaign in response to the information at their disposal. The next section describes the unfolding of the long and stubborn battle of Tornavento, where Spanish, German, and Italian soldiers stormed the French in their entrenchments, detailing the tactics of both the infantry and the cavalry, and re-evaluating the effectiveness of Spanish methods in the 1630s. The account focuses on the motivations of soldiers to fight, and how they reacted to the stress of combat. 

Gregory Hanlon arrives at surprising conclusions on the conditions under which they were ready to kill their adversaries, and when they were content to intimidate them into retiring. The volume concludes by examining the penchant for looting of the soldiery in the aftermath of battle, the methods of treating wounded soldiers in the Milan hospital, the horrific consequences of hygienic breakdown in the French camp, and the strategic failure of the invasion in the aftermath of battle. This in turn underscores the surprising resilience of Spanish policies and Spanish arms in Europe. In describing with painstaking detail the invasion of 1636, Hanlon explores the universal features of human behaviour and psychology as they relate to violence and war.

read more here @ H-Net Reviews

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Corpse roads in Cumbria showcased with new book

From Times & Star:
Authors Alan Cleaver and Lesley Park have compiled the routes, history and legends surrounding the county's ancient corpse roads which date back to medieval times.
The roads were used to transport the dead from remote parishes to the 'mother' church.
Mr Cleaver, 58, said: "There are few written records about the corpse roads but we have included what records do exist alongside the oral tradition, legends and half-remembered tales that still survive.
Criss-crossing the Cumbrian landscape are many trods, paths, lonnings and other ancient trackways. Included among these are several corpse roads. The enigmatic name hints at their curious origins. These paths were used until the 18th Century to transport coffins from the remote villages to the 'mother' church. Eventually villagers petitioned for their own churches and burial rights but the corpse roads remained. A few are still marked on Ordnance Survey maps and are even signposted. But others are just a dim memory or half-remembered legend. Alan Cleaver and Lesley Park have researched these ancient paths preserving their route for future generations and sharing them in this book for those who want to explore them further.

Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX

Image result for Before Church and State: A Study of the Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IXSynopsis from St. Paul Center:

Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX by Andrew Willard Jones explores in great detail the “problem of Church and State” in thirteenth-century France. It argues that while the spiritual and temporal powers existed, they were not parallel structures attempting to govern the same social space in a contest over sovereignty. Rather, the spiritual and the temporal powers were wrapped up together in a differentiated and sacramental world, and both included the other as aspects of their very identity. The realm was governed not by proto-absolutist institutions, but rather by networks of friends that cut across lay/clerical lines. Ultimately, the king’s “fullness of power” and the papacy’s “fullness of power” came together to govern a single social order.

Before Church and State reconstructs this social order through a detailed examination of the documentary evidence, arguing that the order was fundamentally sacramental and that it was ultimately congruent with contemporary incarnational and trinitarian theologies and the notions of proper order that they supported. Because of this, modern categories of secular politics cannot be made to capture its essence but rather paint always a distorted portrait in modernity’s image.

In addition to a detailed reconstruction of the institutions of the kingdom, the work offers a reading of the political and ecclesiological thought of St. Thomas Aquinas that is consistent with that reconstruction. Thomas is here rescued from the liberal or Whig reading that has dominated in recent centuries and is returned to his thirteenth century context.

Previously, scholars interested in challenging modern conceptions of the secular and the religious when treating the Middle Ages, have had to rely largely on historical scholarship written from within the conventional modern paradigm. In this text, Jones provides these scholars with a methodologically and technically rigorous alternative. If the book’s thesis is widely accepted, it will call for the reconsideration of the accepted narrative of medieval Church and State.



read review here @ National Catholic Register

Image result for Before Church and State: A Study of the Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX

Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India's Most Controversial King


The Mughal emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir is one of the most hated men in Indian history. Widely reviled as a religious fanatic who sought to violently oppress Hindus, he is even blamed by some for setting into motion conflicts that would result in the creation of a separate Muslim state in South Asia. In her lively overview of his life and influence, Audrey Truschke offers a clear-eyed perspective on the public debate over Aurangzeb and makes the case for why his often-maligned legacy deserves to be reassessed.

Aurangzeb was arguably the most powerful and wealthiest ruler of his day. His nearly 50-year reign (1658–1707) had a profound influence on the political landscape of early modern India, and his legacy—real and imagined—continues to loom large in India and Pakistan today. Truschke evaluates Aurangzeb not by modern standards but according to the traditions and values of his own time, painting a picture of Aurangzeb as a complex figure whose relationship to Islam was dynamic, strategic, and sometimes contradictory. This book invites students of South Asian history and religion into the world of the Mughal Empire, framing the contemporary debate on Aurangzeb's impact and legacy in accessible and engaging terms.


read review here @ Daily Times by Ayesha Rafiq
The book enacts a fascinating reassessment of Aurangzeb, by recognizing him as a product of his age, as opposed to previous research that makes the elementary mistake of judging Aurangzeb by modern sensibilities. Aurangzeb’s actions do begin to make sense, when he is placed within the context of Indian codes of conduct and values rather than within the context of twenty first century codes and values. 

Blue, the history of a color by Michel Pastoureau

Image result for blue history of a colourReview by Mihai Andrei for ZME Science:

The truth is that Blue, like some of Pastoureau’s books (which are, you’ve guessed it, about other colors), is a new way of looking at history. We look at history through the lens of a country, or a group of people, but what if we looked through the lens of a color? We take colors for granted today because we’re so spoiled with choice. 

The production of color was also strictly regulated. It’s not like you could just go and produce whatever color or dye you wanted. If you wanted to sell it, you needed a license, and a license wasn’t easy to obtain.

For the longest time, blue was the renegade of colors, ignored or shunned, and yet it’s now the world’s favorite color, according to almost all surveys.


see also:
  • Red: The History of a Color 
  • Green: The History of a Color 
  • Black: The History of a Color 

Anne O’Brien on giving voice to history’s women


By her own admission, Anne O’Brien is an accidental author. A history teacher by profession, it was only when she moved from her native Yorkshire to Herefordshire that she decided to have a go at writing a book and even then she assumed it would be nothing more than a pleasant way to fill her new-found spare time. 

“What changed was discovering the story of Anne Neville, the daughter of the incredibly powerful Earl of Warwick." 

O’Brien’s previous novels have focused on the likes of Lady Katherine Swynford, mistress to the merciless royal prince John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, Joanna of Navarre, widow of the Duke of Brittany, and Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine. Her latest, Queen of the North, continues the theme, opening in 1399 and focusing on Elizabeth Mortimer.

O’Brien hasn’t yet exhausted the medieval period and with historical fiction second only to crime when it comes to attracting a loyal readership she also believes there is a market for strong women in literature.


Sunday, June 3, 2018

An Era of Darkness by Shashi Tharoor


Image result for an era of darknessIn May 2015, Indian author and politician Shashi Tharoor spoke at the Oxford Union debate for the motion: British owe reparations to her former colonies. In his 15 minute speech, Tharoor eloquently outlined how the British destroyed the Indian economy, amassed huge wealth, and when they departed, left India worst off.

In An Era of Darkness, Tharoor expands his Oxford union speech by collating selected accounts and sources and working them into a forceful, paced narrative. In cogently written eight chapters, he builds an impressive case against the British depredations and misgovernment that British Indian subjects suffered during 200 years of colonial rule of the South Asian sub-continent.

While there is no denying of the fact that many British laws were enacted to repress India’s independence struggle, but post-colonial India has acted much more brutally in occupied regions like Kashmir and Nagaland, where, enjoying impunity under the post-British laws like Armed Forces Special Powers Act, Indian armed forces have massacred, raped, tortured, and disappeared thousands of people.

All this criticism against Tharoor is in no way intended to discount or undermine his valid arguments against the British rule over South Asian sub-continent. He has an impressive case against colonialism. But, not all his opinions and arguments are genuine, some are just too simplistic.

For example, he does not mention how Dalits and marginalised groups view the British rule with respect to their empowerment—about which Dalit intellectuals like Ambedkar have written. If a reader wants to know all the bad things that British did in her South Asian colony, then this book is an apt catalogue for that. It is a well-crafted, racy narrative, with sprinkles of wry humour here and there. But, for a more balanced, complex, account on the colonial history refer to ‘academic’ works.

read entire review @ Free Press Kashmir

The Darkening Age by Catherine Nixey

Palmyra, Syria. “The destroyers came from out of the desert . . . and utter destruction followed.” Wearing beards and dressed in black, the religious zealots entered the temple and attacked the statue of the goddess Athena. When they were done, “they melted out once again into the desert. Behind them the temple fell silent.” 

With this nifty, cinematic opening Catherine Nixey draws an equivalence between today’s Islamic extremists and vicious bands of Christian thugs in 385AD. Her aim is to tell the “unknown” story, as she puts it, of the collapse of late Hellenic and Roman antiquity, thereby exposing the truth about the inherent violence and ignorance of early Christianity. As she puts it: “The story of Christianity’s good works in this period has been told again and again . . . The history and sufferings of those whom Christianity defeated have not been.”

read more here @ Financial Times and @ The Guardian

The Life of Mary: Queen of Scots by Roderick Graham


Mary, Queen of Scots lived during one of the most fascinating periods in history. Graham’s epic work paints a unique picture of this controversial woman, showing her to be neither a Catholic martyr nor murdering adulteress but a passive young woman caught up in the ruthless sea of sixteenth-century politics who lacked the shrewdness and empowerment of her contemporaries—Catherine de Medici, Diane de Poitiers and Elizabeth Tudor. Instead, she relied on her beauty and charm and allowed herself to be a victim of circumstance. When she did finally attempt to control her future, she set in motion the events that would lead her to the executioner’s block.



Ireland’s Green Larder by Margaret Hickey

From the Irish Times:

Ireland, wrote the Venerable Bede in the 8th century, “far surpasses Britain… The island abounds in milk and honey; nor is there any want of vines, fish, and fowl”. Not everyone has always shared Bede’s enthusiasm about Irish food; indeed we are often anxious that our fare pales in comparison to the great food traditions of our continental cousins.

Margaret Hickey’s beautifully written new crowdfunded book on Irish food gives the lie to such insecurity. Skillfully weaving divergent threads from literature, poetry, and historical observations into a “great tapestry of Irish food history”, Hickey shows that our “green and life-giving larder” is worth celebrating.

Hickey’s fascinating book shows that the history of our food is not just an antiquarian curiosity, but a window on the wider history of Ireland itself, “a story of what grows on her soil, the creatures that live on her hills and in her waters and the work of human hands, passing life on to the next generation”. In exploring that story, Hickey has produced an innovative book of great interest.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Who shot Michael Collins?


Who shot Michael Collins? That is a question that can never be answered, but will forever be asked. Author Gerard Murphy admits as much at the beginning of The Great Cover Up: The Truth about the Death of Michael Collins. He then goes on to deliver a forensically persuasive argument in support of his case that the death of the nation's future leader was a big cover-up.

Why were both sides of the Civil War divide so evasive when it came to the death of Michael Collins? Why were they still trying to effect cover-ups as late as the 1960s?



Determined to find the truth despite the trails of deception left by many of the key players, Gerard Murphy, a scientist, looked in detail at the evidence. Previous researchers have tended to concentrate on the reminiscences of survivors. Murphy instead focuses on information that appeared in the immediate wake of the ambush, before attempts could be made to conceal the truth. He also examines newly released material, and has carried out a forensic analysis of the ambush site based on photographic evidence of the aftermath recently discovered in a Dublin attic.

These investigations have unearthed significant new evidence, overlooked for almost a century, that seriously questions the version of events currently accepted by historians.

'The Poppy War' : A magical, brutal coming-of-age tale in a medieval Asian fantasy world 


"The Poppy War" brings to life a war orphan named Fang Runin or Rin for short, who barely makes a life in a deeply divided empire of magic, martial arts and angry gods. Author R.F. Kuang constructs a magical world reminiscent of medieval China, rather than the standard European tropes common to the genre, where monsters, both human and not, can wreak unspeakable havoc.

Kuang ambitiously begins a trilogy that doesn't shy away from the darkest sides of her characters, wrapped in a confectionery of high-fantasy pulp. Where the children's "Avatar" animated-series ultimately is about optimism in the face of unending warfare, "The Poppy War" delivers a tale more fatalistic, but still relatable. Frankly, it's also just wonderful to have more genre stories told through an Asian cultural tableau. The future of Rin in this world may appear quite dark, but that of the series seems bright indeed.

Book two is titled The Dragon Republic whilst the third is yet untitled.

read more here also @ Barnes & Noble


Obit: John Julius Norwich

From The Guardian:

John Julius Norwich at home in Little Venice; the portrait above the mantlepiece is of his mother
John Julius Norwich, who has died aged 88, called himself a writer and broadcaster. He was really a man of many enthusiasms – for books, music, architecture, paintings – and his great talent was to be able to convey those passions to the public at large, through books, radio broadcasts and in nearly three dozen television documentaries from the BBC, on subjects ranging from the fall of Constantinople, through Napoleon’s final 100 days’ campaign, to Haiti’s revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture.

read more here @ John Julius Norwich and Wikipedia

He was a favourite author of mine, and I have (and have read) a number of his books including:
  • The Normans in the South (1967)
  • The Kingdom in the Sun (1970)
  • A History of Venice: The Rise to Empire (1977)
  • A History of Byzantium: The Early Centuries (1988); The Apogee (1991); The Decline & Fall (1995)
  • A Short History of Byzantium (1997)
  • Paradise of Cities: Venice in the Nineteenth Century (2003)
  • The Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean (2006)
  • The Popes: A History, (March 2011)
  • Sicily: A Short History 2015
  • Four Princes (2016)
  • A History of France ( due to be released Oct 2018)