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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Land of Marvels
I've always been fascinated by stories set in the Middle or Near East, and this book, set in 1914 in the desert of Mesopotamia fits all the criteria of what I thought should make a great read. I can't believe I haven't come across it before, but I have made up for my shortcomings now.

In March 1914 Somerville, a young archaeologist is in his third season of a...
Published 11 months ago by Keen Reader

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Digging for Motivations
I was disappointed with this book. I bought it because it was set in a period (just before WWI) and a place (Mesopotamia)which interests me, and because the author is a Booker Prize Winner whom I have never read. Oh, and the cover image of the hardback is luscious!

I didn't feel the pace was very brisk - although others may say that it suited the reflective...
Published on 30 Sep 2009 by Judi Moore


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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Land of Marvels, 25 Jan 2014
By 
Keen Reader "lhendry4" (Auckland, New Zealand) - See all my reviews
(TOP 100 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Land of Marvels (Paperback)
I've always been fascinated by stories set in the Middle or Near East, and this book, set in 1914 in the desert of Mesopotamia fits all the criteria of what I thought should make a great read. I can't believe I haven't come across it before, but I have made up for my shortcomings now.

In March 1914 Somerville, a young archaeologist is in his third season of a dig in an area of Turkey; desperate to find something that will ensure continued funding and continued digging, he despairs as he watches the railway coming nearer, built by German engineers under an agreement with the Turkish government. He believes that is the biggest threat he faces. But also in the picture are some others with motivations of their own; a young Arab by the name of Jehar, anxious to earn or steal one hundred gold pieces to buy his desired bride, Ninanna; Somerville's rather disappointed wife Edith who watches the dig assistant Palmer and his relationship with the young visitor from England, Patricia; the English Major Manning who is ostensibly compiling survey maps on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society; Fahir Bey, the commissioner appointed by the Turks to report on the progress of Somerville's expedition; the British Ambassador who was at school with Somerville; Lord Rampling who believes that British oil interests should outweigh archaeological concerns in these times of uncertainty. And not a few who believe that war is imminent across a divided Europe. Somerville's yearning to emulate Layard, and make finds like Woolley and Lawrence have done just a year previous, blind him to what may be right under his nose. Somerville's life is embedded in the past, in the rich historical worlds of Ashurnasirpal, Esarhaddon and Sennacherib; of the Hittites, the Babylonians; of Assyria, Egypt and Nineveh. Around him the modern world is a blur but one he ignores at his peril.

This is a wonderful book, rich in detail of ancient Assyria and its kings, rich also in early twentieth century European intrigue and greed. People whose lives were circumscribed by their own ambitions are caught up in far wider international interests and concerns, and lives are changed for ever. The writing is lyrical and deep, the narrative is enthralling, the people ghastly and figures of sympathy by turn, and the vein of historical and archaeological narrative which flows through this story make it, to my mind, even more intriguing and riveting. Great stuff.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Desert Drama, 7 Dec 2013
By 
Susie B - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Land of Marvels (Hardcover)
Set in the desert of Mesopotamia in 1914, in the months before the Great War, Barry Unsworth's sixteenth novel centres on English archeologist, Somerville, a man with a passionate interest in the Assyrian Empire, who is funding an excavation with his own money, which is fast running out. Desperate to unearth a sensational find, Somerville is distraught when a new railway being built by the Germans moves ever closer to his site, threatening to destroy all that he has been working towards. Enter Jehar, employed by Somerville to keep him informed of the progress of the railway, a Bedouin Arab, who, when he is not collecting information for Somerville, is looking for ways to earn enough money to pay the uncle of a beautiful Circassian girl, Ninanna, for her hand in marriage. Other characters with Somerville on the dig include his beautiful, but disappointed wife, Edith, who feels the excitement has gone out of their marriage; Somerville's assistant, Palmer, an acknowledged expert on Assyrian and Sumerian inscriptions, and his suffragist fiancee, Patricia. Visiting the site, we meet Major Manning, a British army officer, who is ostensibly employed to travel around the region collecting information for survey maps, but in truth has a somewhat different role, and Alex Elliott, an American geologist posing as an archeologist, who takes an unwise interest in Somerville's neglected wife, Edith.

Initially this is a rather slow-paced tale, but as the protagonists' stories develop and the plot deepens, the narrative begins to move at a faster pace and becomes more involving and intriguing. I particularly enjoyed reading about the character Jehar, and his love for Ninanna, and his fear that her grasping uncle would sell her to another man, or into prostitution, before he could accumulate the high bride price, but I would have liked to have learnt more about Edith and the duplicitous Elliott, and I would also have liked to have known a little more about another character, Rampling, who was involved in Elliott's role posing as an archeologist and whom we met only briefly. That said, I found this novel, with its attractive dust jacket (I have the hardcover), an enjoyable read and I found the details about the archeological excavation and the Assyrian Empire, brief though they may have been, both interesting and informative. As the story drew to a close, Unsworth deftly brought his plotlines together and left his story with an explosive (literally) and rather melodramatic ending - but obviously I shall leave that for prospective readers to discover for themselves.

4 Stars.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "He who owns the oil will own the world, he will rule the sea and the land, he will rule his fellowmen.", 29 Dec 2008
By 
Mary Whipple (New England) - See all my reviews
(HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)    (TOP 100 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Land of Marvels (Hardcover)
(4.5 stars) Mesopotamia, once the site of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, boasted vibrant civilizations four thousand years before the Christian Era, and the ruins of these civilizations, many of them buried for six thousand years, dot the countryside. By 1914, when this novel opens, Mesopotamia (Iraq) is being ruled from Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire. Virtually every European country is in Iraq, however, waiting for the weakened Ottoman Empire to fall. The Germans are building a railroad from Basra through Baghdad to Constantinople, and they may excavate along the track, through vast oil fields. An American from Standard Oil is on site, the French are making noises, and the Russians and the Austro-Hungarian Empire hope to profit. With World War I looming, the need for oil and chrome ore (to make armor-piercing weapons) is pressing, and everyone sees Iraq as a source of materiel.

Trying to ignore this turmoil is John Somerville, a thirty-five-year-old archaeologist who has been working for three years at Tell Erdek, an ancient site near Baghdad that has so far yielded few artifacts. A broken piece of ivory, a carved flat stone, a reconstructed clay tablet with writing, and the beginning of a wall made of kiln-fired bricks are all that Somerville has to show for three years of work. Unfortunately, his excavations are in the path of the German-built railroad, and he is running out of money. As Somerville tries to protect "his" dig, he must deal with the Turks, and with deceitful British entrepreneurs and officials. The British believe that war is coming, and they are not going to interfere against the German railroad, even if it means the destruction of unique archaeological artifacts.

As Booker Prize winner Barry Unsworth explores conflicts, deceits, and betrayals on all levels, he creates memorable characters, both on the dig at Tell Erdek and in the wider world. Love stories and affairs among those on the archaeological team reveal as much about deceit and betrayal on a small scale as does the duplicitous behavior of financiers and governments on a grand scale. No one can trust anyone else. Unsworth creates a vibrant picture of a tumultuous time and place, endowing what might have been an exotic tale of archaeological discovery with a broader thematic scope.

The action never flags as the points of view change from Somerville's excavation, to life at the team's headquarters, to the courtship of Jehan the informer, to government officials and financiers. As artifacts reveal the fate of the ancient "palace" and its inhabitants, Somerville is able to identify the seventh century BC ruler (or his double--another possible deceit). TMorality Playhose familiar with ancient art history, archaeological procedures, and the culture of the Babylonians and Assyrians will be thrilled by the details of Somerville's discoveries. Those with little interest in these subjects may find the technical details challenging, if not tedious. n Mary Whipple

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Digging for Motivations, 30 Sep 2009
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This review is from: Land of Marvels (Hardcover)
I was disappointed with this book. I bought it because it was set in a period (just before WWI) and a place (Mesopotamia)which interests me, and because the author is a Booker Prize Winner whom I have never read. Oh, and the cover image of the hardback is luscious!

I didn't feel the pace was very brisk - although others may say that it suited the reflective nature of most of the protagonists, whose several motivations are explored in detail. Despite the book being, ostensibly, about a 'Dig' for most of the book the excavation is almost incidental and downplayed. Only at the end does the Dig become a real part of the plot when all those motivations come together in a most explosive manner. Then, wow, everything unravels at breakneck speed.

There are flashes of lyrical writing - perhaps too many for something that is being marketed as a spy thriller. There are also longueurs which ill suit the genre.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Barry Unsworth never lets me down!, 25 Mar 2010
By 
Wynne Kelly "Kellydoll" (Coventry, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Land of Marvels (Paperback)
Barry Unsworth never lets me down - Land of Marvels is a lovely read and a cracking good story. Somerville, an English archaeologist, is directing an excavation in Mesopotamia. It is 1914 and hostilities are already looming and encroaching on his work. He has invested him own money in the project and is desperately hoping that something of real value and interest will be found - thus ensuring his acceptance by the academic community. His wife is with him but she has little interest in his work - even though it was his enthusiasm and ambition that first attracted her.

The Germans are financing a railway line which Somerville suspects will be routed right through where he is excavating so he feels he must proceed with all due haste. He is persuaded by a somewhat shady British businessman and the ambassador in Constantinople to take on an American called Elliott. He is asks to pretend that Elliott is a fellow historian when in fact he is a geologist looking for oil deposits. But Elliott's loyalties do not lie with the British.

Land of Marvels is superbly researched. Knowing very little about Assyrian or Babylonian history I found myself checking to see whether the facts given were correct. (Yes, they were!) The characterisations were all very believable - from the wily Jehar to the practical Patricia. Somerville can be viewed as someone of the "old world" interested in academic pursuit and learning. Elliott is very "new world" - dynamic, ambitious and skilled.

There are some interesting imperialist attitudes. When some interesting things are found in the dig Somerville assumes confidently that they should all be transported to England. The German engineers are granted ownership of the land surrounding the railway. Elliott knows that any oil he finds will profit an American company.

Churchill prophesied: "He who owns the oil will own the world..." How true.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A GENTLE TALE, 22 Nov 2010
This review is from: Land of Marvels (Paperback)
This is rather a slow moving , but gentle novel,and it covers a rather gentle and sedate occupation, namely excavations of long lost treasures. The whole novel explodes at the end when everything comes to fruition.At times I found it rather slow, but it portrayed the age of empire, and the purchase of assets at knock down prices well. It portrayed the importance of oil as the important asset that would be wanted by people in the future., and those that were determined to restrict the progress of mankind for their own particular ends-money and power.
The novels illustrates the vast untapped wealth that existed both in terms of natural resources, and undiscovered burial places of ancient royality, it must have been a time of great excitement.
The characters were well portrayed,and the writing was descriptive.
I found some of the ancient history difficult to comprehend, as I had no knowledge at all of this age, but I found the idea of the discovery of The Garden of Eden, a 21st century idea, certainly the building of a hotel on the site seemed to fit in to todays money making scams.
A good piece of writing well worth reading.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A thought-provoking novel let down by its pacing, 20 July 2010
This review is from: Land of Marvels (Paperback)
"Land of Marvels", the latest book from Booker Prize-winning author Barry Unsworth, takes place in Mesopotamia in 1914, mere months before the Great War is due to break out across Europe. Tensions are high as interest groups from Britain, Germany, Turkey and even the United States compete for control of the region, both for its strategic value and for its newly-discovered mineral resources. Meanwhile John Somerville, an archaeologist specialising in the Assyrian Empire, is directing an excavation of an ancient mound known as Tell Erdek thought to hold ancient treasures. But his work is threatened, since the site lies in the path of a new railway that is being built to link Constantinople to Baghdad. With his money running out, his reputation on the line, and the railway growing ever closer, Somerville finds himself racing against time to uncover Tell Erdek's secrets and preserve them for posterity.

This is an thought-provoking novel with a great deal to say about imperialism and capitalism, and its effects on the people who live in their shadow. A whole host of vibrant and intriguing characters are introduced, including the charismatic American geologist Elliott (masquerading as an archaeologist while he surveys the region for oil), Lord Rampling (the wealthy industrialist who is paying him), local man Jehar (the spy Somerville employs to get information on the progress of the railway), and Ninnana (the girl whom Jehar hopes to marry with the money he earns).

Central to the book is the theme of deception: namely the lies that the various players tell to each other, and the lies that they tell to themselves. No one in the novel is quite who he or she professes to be; each in some way is putting on a show, and their true motivations are always disguised. Indeed in lots of ways "Land of Marvels" has the makings of a historical thriller. However, the plot as a whole is not especially complex and the first half of the book in particular can feel tedious at times. Only when the excavation starts to bear fruit in the last hundred or so pages does the pace really pick up, eventually reaching its explosive and surprising climax.

Everything considered, "Land of Marvels" offers a fascinating insight into a little-known area of world history, and Unsworth illustrates well the various power plays that were in operation on the eve of the Great War. Nevertheless, the lack of pace through the early sections ultimately lets it down as a novel. While all the right elements are there - greed and paranoia, power and ambition, deception and intrigue are all on show - somehow they never quite gel enough to make for a truly satisfying read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Stays with me, 9 Jun 2014
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This review is from: Land of Marvels (Kindle Edition)
I loved the characters in this book, with their finely nuanced motivations and cultural baggage. As with most of Barry Unsworth's books, the historical setting is note perfect and the plot beautifully imagined, but neither is necessarily the real point. Somehow he manages to convey deep truths about human nature and how life works, behind the scenes of an enjoyable read and it is this aspect that haunts you.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Storytelling, 24 Feb 2009
By 
A. Ross (Washington, DC) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Land of Marvels (Hardcover)
Unsworth is one those writers I've been meaning to try for a long, long time, but for whatever reason, never got around to. However, the pre-WWI Middle Eastern setting of his latest book motivated me to finally see what the fuss is all about. I grew up in the Middle East, have been to archeological sites and digs, and was curious as to what he would do with the material.

The story takes place in 1914, just weeks before World War I breaks out. Somerville is a youngish British archeologist who's pinned his professional hopes on his excavations at (the fictional) Tell Erdek in modern day Iraq. After three seasons of digging, his money has just about run out, and he's desperate to find anything that will make his reputation in the field. Slowly but surely, a few interesting artifacts turn up, and he starts to think he might be on to something. Meanwhile, he works with one eye to the horizon, as construction of a German-financed railroad from Basra to Constantinople threatens to destroy his dig.

While Somerville has pitched his tent in the desert for academic glory, the area teems with plenty of other characters with their own agendas. There's a British major wandering around scouting the area and speaking with various tribal leaders in preparation for the impending war. There's a slightly loony Dutch couple seeking the site of the original Garden of Eden. There's Somerville's shady Arab spy Jehar, who brings him updates on the rail line progress. There's an American oil company agency, secretly prospecting for oil. And just to complicate matters, there's Somerville's wife, his earnest assistant, and another young British lady.

With all these characters embarked on their own missions, there's a lot going on here, and Unsworth does an excellent job of keeping it all manageable and moving. There's the intrigue of the hunt for oil, the intrigue of the German railroad, and mostly importantly, the intrigue of the dig itself, and what lies beneath the sand. There are also stories of love and betrayal, including a very good subplot involving Jehar's romance with a young Circassian girl. To a certain extent, these wooings and cuckoldings can be read as mirrors of the larger forces of imperialism and capitalism that are at work behind Somerville's back.

Clearly, there are a lot of threads being woven in to this story, and it's hard to miss to connections to contemporary imperial adventures in the Middle East. And while the story isn't perfect (there are a number of scenes relating ancient Assyrian and Babylonian history that kind of bog down), the climax is wonderful comment on what happens to those whose ambitions lead them into the Middle Eastern briar patch. (It's also refreshing to find excellent storytelling with compelling characters in a book that's not 300-500 pages -- I'll definitely be reading some of Unsworth's previous books.)
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Blast From the Past and a Dyn-O-Mite Read, 16 Mar 2011
By 
Stephanie De Pue (Wilmington, NC USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Land of Marvels (Paperback)
"Land of Marvels" is a cleverly done piece of historical fiction, the newest release from British author Barry Unsworth, winner of Britain's most prestigious Booker Prize for his previous,Sacred Hunger. It is elegantly lean, and gives us a fable set in 1914, the fraught days before World War I, in a country then known as Mesopotamia.

It centers on John Somerville, a would-be British archaeologist, excavating an off the beaten path tell (mound considered to be covering archaeological remains), and nervously watching as a German-built railway, proposed to cross the country, comes closer and closer to his work. While he is digging away, Somerville will tell us quite a bit about the ancient civilizations that once lived at this location, principally the Assyrians.However, the major western powers are also grappling over who will grab the lion's share of oil-rich Mesopotamia after the weakening Austro-Hungarian/Ottoman Empire that currently owns it, is defeated and disjointed in the war they expect to come. An American geologist, searching for oil, will come and join Somerville's settlement, posing as another archaeologist; he will be followed by further outsiders. And Unsworth will succeed in tying all this ancient history into the present day.

The book does start slow, then picks up to dynamic pace. Of course, if you find ancient history, and archaeology fascinating, as I do, you will find the introductory material worthwhile. And Unsworth is,for sure, a fine writer: narrative, descriptive writing and dialog all flow smoothly from his pen. Furthermore, his plot's got a dynamite surprise ending. Mind you, I'm not an academic: I own a master's degree, but it's a useless one. And, without looking it up, I don't even know who was on that Booker Prize jury, let alone know anything much about them. So I will limit myself to saying: a dyn-o-mite read.
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Land of Marvels
Land of Marvels by Barry Unsworth
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