Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai


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Spooking

As it usually (and frequently) happens, I was looking for a gift for my brother’s birthday, and I ended up buying a few books for myself. I also found a suitable gift for the brother, so it’s all right.

And among the books I bought for myself there’s one that’s moving steadily to the top of the best books I read this year. I bought it from Amazon and I am happy of my purchase, but you can find it for free on the Project Gutenberg.

The book is called The Road to En-Dor, and it was written in 1919 by a former officer of the British army, Welshman E.H. Jones. The subtitle is suggestive…

BEING AN ACCOUNT OF HOW TWO PRISONERS OF WAR AT YOZGAD IN TURKEY WON THEIR WAY TO FREEDOM

It is the account of how Jones and RAF pilot C.W. Hill, both prisoners of the Turkish forces in a camp in the Altai mountains, set up a colossal spiritualist scam in order to bamboozle their guards and make good their escape.
It took them almost two years, and a lot of chutzpah.
Jones calls his fake medium ploy “spooking” and the made-up Spirit Guide he created with the help of Hill is, of course “The Spook”.

The book is written in a plain, straightforward tone and it does really sound like the reminiscences of someone that saw some pretty dark places, but got through it all, and now can talk about it.
Jones is a fine writer, the plot hatched around the ouija board is the sort of crazy that would be deemed implausible in a novel, and the succession of events feels like a very good adventure comedy-drama.
The BBC should do a series from this book.
Indeed, there is a screenplay, written in 2014 by Neil Gaiman and Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller) – but apparently nobody was interested in shooting the script.

This book ticks all the right boxes with me – it’s an adventure story, it’s set in the East and somewhat along the Silk Road, it’s set in the early 20th century. It features war (and little-known episodes of the Great war inparticular), danger, espionage, bravery, survival, the supernatural, stage magic and confidence games. And it’s a true story, narrated with the dry wit of a man from a more civilized time.
This is a perfect example of why I love history so much.


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A beautiful book

I gave myself a gift last week, because I had done a lot of work, made sure we will be able to pay the bills for a month or two, and I felt like I deserved a prize.
Also, I was looking for a birthday present for my brother, and as it usually happens, I bought a present for myself. Some things never change.

And today the mailman delivered a copy of Robert Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, the illustrated edition.
And boy is this a wonder.

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Selkies, Sirens & Sea Monsters (and Octopodes)

The anthology Water: Selkies, Sirens & Sea Monsters, edited by Rhonda Parrish, is out tomorrow, just in time for a nice relaxing read on the beach. Advance reviews were extremely positive.
The volume features my short story The man who speared octopodes, about a man that, you know, spears octopodes, for… reasons.
Check it out.


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Murder on the sea

My friend Shanmei, that usually writes Chinese-flavored, wuxia-style fantasies, is doing a series of historical mysteries set in the very first days of the last century, and based on the first-hand accounts of her grand-grandfather’s experiences in China and the East.

Murder on the Giava is the first of the adventures of Lieutenant Bianchi, an Italian officer attached to the Italian Expeditionary Corp sent to Peking in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion.

A smart, resourceful young man with a passion for photography, Bianchi is the sort of guy that notices things, and the go-to man when someone turns up dead on the ship that is carrying the Italian troops to China.

Murder on the Giava is a novella-length mystery, filled with historical detail and built around a baffling mystery.

Deception, sabotage, murder … and Bianchi has yet to set foot in China!
This is a nice start for a new series, and I hope we’ll see the sequel soon.
Meanwhile, you can get the book both in digital and paperback form, and it’s an excellent light reading for the summer.

(and yes, I translated it in English, so any problem with the text is my responsibility)


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A (Mary) Gentle thing: The logistics of Carthage

Rats and Gargoyles by Mary Gentle, is one of my favorite novels of all time, and Mary Gentle has always been on the list of authors from whom I hope, one day, to learn something.
What I find particularly appealing about Gentle’s work is the idea that the reader should do their job: think, connect the dots, fill in the blanks. This is part of what makes the Gentle so “difficult” but also, I believe, so rewarding for those who have the courage to face the reading.

In the past few days I received as a gift a copy of Cartomancy, the volume that brings together all the short fiction by the author (excluding the stories of the White Crow series, which are found in a separate volume). It is one of the many collections of short stories that came to me for my birthday – and I thought … why not do a series of posts, a piece on each short story?
And why not start with the stories in Cartomancy?

(also, this is a the first in a series of posts that I will do on my Patreon, both in Italian and English – this one is freely available here too, and on my Patreon page)

Let’s try.

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Reading Tanith Lee

It’s the sixth anniversary of the death of Tanith Lee, one of my favorite writers, and one I have a long history with. As I think I have often mentioned in the past, The Birthgrave was the second book I ever read in English, back in 1984. It was the one that got me hooked to reading in the original language, and it made me a Tanith Lee fan. It also dispelled this strange prejudice – that was at the time common in the Italian fantasy community – that Lee was bad, a writer of limited scope and poor ideas, a talentless hack and, worst still, a woman.
“She’s almost as bad as Michael Moorcock, and she’s an ultra-feminist!” a reviewer wrote.
Because thus was in ancient times.

Through the years I have read a lot of Lee’s work, and in the last few weeks I went on a shopping spree (my birthday’s coming, remember?) and started filling the gaps: the books I missed completely, and the books I read forty years ago in wobbly Italian translations, and now I feel like revisiting.
Ebooks are a boon, in this case.

So I got me a copy of Cyrion, a collection of fun sword & sorcery shorts I had given a wide berth to when it had been published in Italian, that ofer an interesting take on a somewhat Mediterranean/Middle Eastern fantasy. Cyrion’s adventures will serve me as a warm-up before I dive into the sword & sorcery collection Empress of Dreams, that has been recently published and collects Lee’s other sword & sorcery tales.
The title of the second collection is particularly apt, as it recalls C.A. Smith, sometimes called the Emperor of Dreams, and Tanith Lee S&S stories are somewhat similar, in tone and spirit, to Smith’s.

Then I’ve got me a copy of Companions on the Road, my old Italian edition being buried in a box here somewhere. I admit I remember very little of the book – I read it after the two-book series Don’t Bite the Sun/Drinking Sapphire Wine (still one of my faves from Lee), and the sudden shift to fantasy had left me cold and not very interested. And as I am at it, I might also re-read those two other novels.

Then, a collection of Indian fantasies (or science-fantasies), Tamastara, that I had completely missed at the time of publication. This one promises to be a nice change of pace – and I’m always interested in non-Western fantasies.

And finally, I got a copy of Dreams of Dark and Light, a hefty collection of science-fiction and fantasy short stories.

Tanith Lee had an unique voice, and an extreme versatility, and is one of the writers one should read to learn how it’s done. It will be a pleasure spending my summer nights reading her stories.