WRATH OF THE FURIES: Roman detective Gordianus the Finder tries to go undercover amid angry Greeks bearing arms – #bookreview

 

Wrath of the Furies

A Novel of the Ancient World

Steven Saylor

Minotaur Books – hardback, Kindle

As a young student, I deliberately avoided the ancient world—all of those armless and headless statues, magnificent carved-stone structures collapsed into rubble, “wonders of the world,” and gods and goddesses who allegedly had both magical powers and human frailties.

Now that I am somewhat older (okay, a lot older), I have read several of the 15 novels in Steven Saylor’s popular Roma Sub Rosa series of historical mysteries. The series features a clever Roman investigator known as Gordianus the Finder. Gordianus is a fictional character, but he encounters many of the ancient world’s real-life kings, queens, generals, political leaders and other figures while trying to solve murders and other crimes.

Thanks to Saylor’s expertise and irrepressible enthusiasm for ancient Roman and Greek times, I have found myself both enjoying his engaging fiction and pausing now and then to look up more about the people, places, things, and customs that Gordianus is encountering in each book. In other words, I am learning some eye-opening things about the ancient world and wishing I had gotten an earlier start.

In Saylor’s new novel, Wrath of the Furies, set in 88 B.C., Gordanius is a young man of just 22 and still somewhat subject to youth’s reckless belief in invincibility.  He receives a cryptic message, apparently a distress signal, from his former tutor and friend, Antipater, and decides to sneak into Greek-held territory to try to rescue him. Of course, this is at a dangerous moment. Greek forces led by the brutal King Mithridates are taking back Greek-speaking cities previously held by the Roman Empire. Some of Italy’s states also are revolting against Rome. So now is not a good time to be Roman detective snooping around amid angry Greeks bearing arms.

It is also not a good time for travelling with your slave (and lover), Bethesda, while trying to disguise yourself as a mute so your Roman-accented Greek won’t give you away. And it is an especially bad time to be going to the ancient Greek-speaking city of Ephesus (where King Mithridates now holds the home-court advantage), particularly when you don’t realize that sinister and powerful forces are drawing you in, and you must solve the mystery of Antipater’s message before it gets you and others killed.

Wrath of the Furies is a fine addition to Steven Saylor’s excellent Roma Sub Rosa ancient history-mystery series.

Si Dunn

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

The Obelisk and the Englishman: The Pioneering Discoveries of Egyptologist William Bankes – #biography #bookreview

 

The Obelisk and the Englishman: The Pioneering Discoveries of Egyptologist William Bankes

 

The Obelisk and the Englishman

The Pioneering Discoveries of Egyptologist William Bankes

Dorothy U. Seyler

Prometheus Books – hardback, Kindle

 

Early in the 19th century, a young Englishman repeatedly risked death and overcame numerous dangers as he sailed along the Nile River and journeyed into deserts, discovering and documenting important details about ancient Egypt, Syria and Jordan.

William John Bankes and his various crews dug away tons of sand from ruins, giant statues, and other artifacts of ancient cultures. Photography was still several decades in the future, so Bankes used the best available technologies of his time, including drawings and paintings, to create images of ruins, shrines, temple floor plans, and hieroglyphs found on walls and in pyramids. He sometimes dangled dangerously from ropes, as well, as he worked in high places to document details he could not decipher, yet knew were important.  On occasion, he even hired teams of artists to travel with him so he could record as many images as possible.

Once he returned to Great Britain after a few years of travels, he entered politics as his father had desired. He was elected twice to the House of Commons, and he maintained a friendship–and possibly more–with the poet Lord Byron, whom he had known since school days.

But Bankes soon found himself again facing death, this time at the hands of the English justice system. Homosexuality was punishable by imprisonment and execution in early 19th-century England, and Bankes was arrested twice on “unnatural behavior” charges that could have gotten him hanged. In his first trial, he was acquitted, thanks in part to testimony in his favor by the Duke of Wellington. Bankes’s second arrest, however, left him little choice but to flee England and go to France and then Italy, where he would pass away in 1855 at age 68.

Despite his great Egyptian discoveries, Bankes essentially died an outlaw from English justice. Yet, through an odd quirk in English law in force at the time, he had been able to return to England occasionally, as long as he was there only on a Sunday. Both from Italian exile and on quick trips back to his family home, Kingston Lacy, Bankes managed to add one more fascinating chapter to his life. He had become an expert on Italian art, and he began helping rework and remodel his English home in the style of an Italian villa, complete with many paintings and some works of sculpture. The home eventually was given to the National Trust in 1982 and, after “[s]ignificant conservation efforts,” was opened to the public.

Whether you know much about ancient Egypt or not, The Obelisk and the Englishman is a fascinating book about a fascinating explorer. It details his exploration methods and the lasting significance of the numerous discoveries and illustrations he made in the Nile region. And it takes readers inside his troubled life as he tried to find personal happiness within the very narrow confines of 19th-century British society.

“William lives on through his archeological work in both Egypt and Syria,” Dorothy U. Seyler writes in this well-researched, well-written biography of Bankes. “Of special value to Egyptologists are his drawings and notes on temples south of Aswan, since many of these temples were lost under the sand or the Nile waters. His discovery of the Abydos King List and his copies of the hieroglyphs contributed to the decoding of Egypt’s sacred language.”

Si Dunn

Journey to the Wilderness: A family’s Civil War letters about hope, honor, love, sacrifice, and the despair of death and defeat – #bookreview

https://i2.wp.com/www.newsouthbooks.com/bkpgs/images/covers/1588383121.jpg

Journey to the Wilderness

War, Memory, and a Southern Family’s Civil War Letters

Frye Gaillard

New South Bookspaperback, Kindle

The Civil War ended 150 years ago. Yet, it remains alive in many aspects of American culture and politics.

For those of us who grew up in the South in the 1940s and 1950s, it was not uncommon to have elderly relatives who had been small children during the war and who still remembered some of the conflict and how it affected their families. It also was not uncommon to hear the war described as if the South had not been defeated. (Indeed, my elementary school was named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and I attended infamous Little Rock Central High at the time when it was forced to re-open and admit black students under the protection of paratroopers sent by  President Eisenhower).

Journey to the Wilderness is structured around an intimate, engrossing collection of Civil War-era letters. They were written by some of Frye Gaillard’s ancestors, including his great-great-grandfather, Thomas Gaillard, and Thomas’s sons, Franklin Gaillard and Richebourg Gaillard, both of whom were officers in the Confederate army.

The letters eloquently capture the high hopes of Southerners as the long fight begins. Then the grim realities of mid-19th-century warfare begin to hit home. As the war stretches out in duration, some of the Gaillards’ letters from the front lines continue to praise the gallantries of Southern infantry and artillery batteries, even in defeat, while condemning the apparent ineffectiveness of Southern cavalry units in certain battles.

At the same time, the two Confederate officers spare few details when describing deaths and injuries witnessed during combat, in such notable battles as Shiloh, Gettysburg, Sharpsburg, and the Wilderness.

The family letters in his book, Frye Gaillard writes, “help paint a portrait of a horrifying time in American history, a time when 622,000 soldiers died on American soil, and when the southern half of the nation–so righteous and defiant when the conflict began–experienced a loss that was measured not only in blood but also in what one of my ancestors called the ‘cruelty and humiliation’ of defeat.”

Frye Gaillard also devotes part of his important book to his own “reflections on war and memory–on how the past lives on in the present, and how it draws us, slowly if we let it, in the painful direction of a more honest truth.”

For anyone drawn to Civil War history and to the conflict’s continuing ramifications, this book is a gem to seek out and read.

Si Dunn

Halley – This fine, intense #YA novel explores the harsh lives that women and children faced in 1930s rural Georgia – #bookreview

Halley

Faye Gibbons

(NewSouth Books – hardcover, Kindle)

 

Life was tough in the mountains of  northeast Georgia during the Great Depression. And it was particularly hard for women, who had virtually no rights and no say in important matters, especially if they were unmarried. The rural mountain life also was tough for children, who were expected to work hard, always obey, not be heard, and waste no time on enjoyment or fun.

In Faye Gibbons’ excellent new young-adult novel, a hard, unforgiving brand of backwoods religion also holds sway in young Halley’s life. Her father, Jim Owenby, recently has died, and Halley, her mother Kate, and her young brother Robbie have been forced to move in with Kate’s mother and father. Halley’s grandfather, Pa Franklin, is a backwoods fundamentalist preacher who cuts no one any slack. He is quick to judge, criticize, preach, punish and condemn. In his eyes, the road to hell is very short and most people already are on it.

Pa Franklin also takes, or tries to take, any money earned by his wife, his daughter and his granddaughter. And he even reads their mail and sometimes throws it away before they can see it. It is his way, he thinks, of protecting them from their own helplessness.

The author grew up in northern Georgia, in a large mountain family, and she has gotten to know many of the region’s people, mill towns, and other communities. Her central character, Halley Owenby, is fourteen and dreams mainly of getting an education and somehow gaining a level of control over her own life.

The actions and confrontations that unfold in this new book are gritty, intense and sometimes dark. Yet the combined powers of hope, love, honesty and stubborn effort finally shine through and light the way to brighter possibilities for Halley and those around her.

Faye Gibbons is a superb storyteller and writer, with a fine-tuned ear for regional speech, a sharp eye for detail, and an unhidden love for her characters–even the ones who make us shudder, cringe and tighten our fists in frustration at their repeated refusals to listen, think, and change.

Si Dunn

 

 

 

 

 

 

Halley

The Mob and the City: The Hidden History of How the Mafia Captured New York – #bookreview

The Mob and the City: The Hidden History of How the Mafia Captured New York

 

The Mob and the City

The Hidden History of How the Mafia Captured New York

C. Alexander Hortis

(Prometheus Books, Kindle, hardcover)

 

Forget The Godfather, its sequels and numerous other, famous “Mafia” movies. This excellent book cuts straight through the hype, fictions, and glamorizations to tell “the hidden history of how the street soldiers”–not the godfathers–“of the modern Mafia captured New York City during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.” And its author convincingly argues that “the key formative decade for the Mafia was actually the 1930s”–not “the Prohibition era of the 1920s” as numerous books and movies have had us believe. During the Great Depression-ravaged Thirties, the Sicilian mafiosi , the Cosa Nostra (“Our Thing”), rose to become New York’s top crime syndicate, with thousands of foot soldiers and associates eventually “entrenched throughout the economy, neighborhoods, and nightlife of New York.”

The Mob and the City is well-written and superbly researched. C. Alexander Hortis has dug deeply into available resources but also uncovered important new data sources, including previously secret files obtained via the Freedom of Information Act. Hortis presents a convincing case that there was (1) never really a “golden age of gangsters” in New York and (2) definitely not much honor among thieves. “The wiseguys,” he writes, “broke every one of their ‘rules,’ trafficked drugs almost from the beginning, became government informers, betrayed each other, lied, and cheated.” Hortis’s story of how New York City’s booming economy also offered the major crime syndicates “an embarrassment of riches” to exploit and plunder is fascinating and eye-opening reading.

Si Dunn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Enemies at Home: A Flavia Albia Novel – A cool detective procedural set in ancient Rome – #mystery #bookreview

 

Lindsey Davis Enemies at Home

 

Enemies at Home

A Flavia Albia Novel

Lindsey Davis

 ( Minotaur Books, hardback, Kindle )

Can a 29-year-old widow make it as a private detective in first century A.D. Rome?

Flavia Albia has some friends in semi-high places. And she has one very important family connection: She is the adopted daughter of Marcus Didius Falco, one of Rome’s best-known “private informers,” the ancient equivalent of a modern private eye.

Flavia has taken over her father’s office, and she keeps needing new cases.  But in the private informer business, it’s “no win, no pay.” So,  she is always on the lookout for a case she can both win and profit from, in a legal system where women have no rights in matters of law and where she must compete with male private informers who do have rights.

Unfortunately, the case that suddenly lands in Flavia’s lap in Enemies at Home does not seem to hold much promise:

“Even before I started, I knew I should say no,” Flavia states at the book’s beginning.

“There are rules for private informers accepting a new case. Never take on clients who cannot pay you. Never do favors for friends. Don’t work with relatives, Think carefully about legal work. If, like me, you are a woman, keep clear of men you find attractive. The Aviola inquiry broke every one of those rules, not the least because the clients had no money, yet I took it on. Will I never learn?”

 Not yet. She meets up with a magistrate, an aedile, named Tiberius Manlius Faustus, with whom she has worked before and finds attractive. (Can “Manlius” be viewed as a Latinized pun on “manly”? Yep.) Faustus has just been assigned to deal with a very complicated case within his jurisdiction, and he needs Flavia’s help to try to sort things out.

A man and his wife have been brutally murdered and robbed, apparently by intruders, and the couples’ slaves have fled to the Temple of Ceres, desperately hoping to get asylum so they can save their lives.

“The slaves got wind of their plight,” Flavia informs us. “They knew the notorious Roman law when a head of household was murdered at home. By instinct the authorities went after the wife, but that was no use if she was dead too. So unless the dead man had another obvious enemy, his slaves fell under suspicion. Whether guilty or not, they were put to death. All of them.”

Flavia’s task, of course, is to attempt to help exonerate the slaves. But Roman law literally is a vicious beast, sometimes. Criminals and those merely suspected of a crime can be thrown to the lions or sewn into large bags along with dangerous animals and dropped into the sea. And that’s just two of the many ways capital punishment can be meted out in the Roman Empire.

Flavia is the slaves’ only hope. And she is armed with nothing but curiosity, questions and bluster, plus some occasional help from the aedile, Manlius Faustus, as she goes where no woman typically has gone before, at least in recent years, in Roman society.

Enemies at Home features a very big cast of characters (spanning two pages at the front of the book). And it is somewhat easy to grow confused by (and a bit wearied of) virtually every male name ending in “-us” and almost every female name ending in “-a.”

For the most part, however, this second Flavia Albia novel is fun and informative reading. Lindsey Davis is a master at moving her characters about in ancient Roman settings. She keeps them both human and limited by the pace, technology, laws and social mores of the Roman Empire (during the reign of the allegedly paranoid emperor, Domitian). Her dialogue often is wickedly sharp and funny, and, except for an occasional Latin word here and there, no effort is made to have the characters speak in any tongue other than modern lingo.

If you have been hoping Falco will reappear and have a cameo role in this new book, be prepared to wait for the next novel in the series and see if he shows up there. Flavia Albia is now her own woman. She emerges strongly from her father’s shadow in Enemies at Home and demonstrates why she also deserves to be known as one of the very best public informers in first-century Rome.

Si Dunn

Computing with Quantum Cats – Strange and exciting times are ahead – #science #bookreview

Computing with Quantum Cats

From Colossus to Qubits

John Gribbin

(Prometheus Books – hardcover, Kindle)

John Gribbin’s new book, Computing with Quantum Cats, is an entertaining, informative and definitely eye-opening look at quantum computing’s recent progress, as well as its exciting near-future possibilities.

The “conventional” (a.k.a. “classical”) computers currently on our desktops, in our briefcases, and in our pockets and purses keep getting smaller and faster, yet laden with more features, memory and processing power. “But,” cautions John Gribbin, a veteran science writer, “the process cannot go on indefinitely; there are limits to how powerful, fast and cheap a ‘classical’ computer can be.”CompwithQuantumCats

Already we are cramming a billion transistors into tiny chips and moving much of our data and programs out to the “cloud,” because we are running out of both physical space and memory space on our shrunken devices.

So what’s next, if the end of Moore’s Law is here?

Gribbin predicts that “within a decade the computer world will be turned upside down”–by quantum computers that  “will enable physicists to come to grips with the nature of quantum reality, where communication can occur faster than the speed of light, teleportation is possible, and particles can be in two places at once. The implications are as yet unknowable,” he concedes, “but it is fair to say that the quantum computer represents an advance as far beyond the conventional computer as the conventional computer is beyond the abacus.”

For now, quantum computers are functioning  at a level somewhat equivalent to the early classical computers that, nearly 70 years ago, could perform only rudimentary calculations, yet filled large rooms and required 25 kilowatts or more of electrical power to light up hundreds or thousands of  vacuum tubes. It may be decades or perhaps just a few years until quantum desktop PCs or quantum smartphones become a reality.

What makes quantum computing such a big deal? 

Classical computers, Gribbin writes, “store and manipulate information consisting of “binary digits, or bits. These are like ordinary switches that can be in one of two positions, on or off, up or down. The state of a switch is represented by the numbers 0 and 1, and all the activity of a computer involves changing the settings on those switches in an appropriate way.”

He notes that two “classical” bits can represent any of the four numbers from 0 to 3 (00,01, 10, and 11). But once you start using quantum bits–qubits (pronounced “cubits”)–the scale of possibilities quickly becomes astronomical.

The “quantum switches can be in both states, on and off, at the same time, like Schrodinger’s ‘dead and alive’ cat. In other words, they can store 0 and 1 simultaneously.” Or both can be off or both can be on, creating three possibilities.

“Looking further into the future,” Gribbin continues, “a quantum computer based on a 30-qubit processor would have the equivalent computing power of a conventional machine running at 10 teraflops (trillions of floating-point operations per second)–ten thousand times faster than conventional desktop computers today….” 

His new book presents an enlightening, engrossing blend of facts and speculations about quantum computing, as well as short biographical sketches of key people who have helped quantum computing become a reality.  These range from Alan Turing and John Von Neumann to more recent researchers such as Nobel Prize recipients Tony Leggett and Brian Josephson, to name a few. Their key research efforts also are explored.

The author notes that “the enormous challenge remains of constructing a quantum computer on a scale large enough to beat classical computers at a range of tasks….” He also observes that “many competing approaches are being tried out in an attempt to find the one that works on the scale required.” And he concedes that in a research field now changing very fast, “I’ve no idea what will seem the best bet by the time you read these words, so I shall simply set out a selection of the various [techniques] to give you a flavor of what is going.”

John Gribbin’s other books include In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat, Erwin Schrodinger and the Quantum Revolution, and In Search of the Multiverse.

The need to break enemy codes in World War II gave us classical computers, Gribbin points out. In a curious twist, it may be the need to create truly unbreakable codes that will help usher in quantum computing as a practical reality.

Si Dunn