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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

Gold: The Race For The World’s Most Seductive Metal

Posted: 12 May 2014 09:00 AM PDT

GOLD. That shiny, soft, alluring metal. Over the last 6,000 years of history, it has been responsible for slavery, war, peace, extinction, and mayhem. It has been a symbol of kingship and a sacred emblem for the gods. It has brought down entire economies and become an essential financial commodity.

No other metal is as universally venerated as is gold. Matthew Hart's Gold details the story of humanity's lust for it, giving the amateur economist, the armchair historian, and Joe Everyman a highly informative, vividly descriptive, and easy to understand look behind the shine of the world's most precious metal.

The book begins with a dramatic look at the activities, both legal and illegal, that surround the mining of gold in South Africa.

We learn of vast mining enterprises that have to fight the ever growing tides of pirate miners who form their own teams and carry out their own work down in the mines.

Hart tells us about the virtual townships that form underground, where an entire support system for these illegal miners is put in place with bars, food and brothels easily available, and all eager to share in the ill-gotten gains.

Hart then provides a quick history of gold and its meteoric rise from a sacred metal used for worship to the de facto standard for currency across the world.

He touches on the European expeditions to search for gold in South America, including the fateful meeting between the Incas and Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro, who kidnaps and murders Inca ruler Atahualpa, plunging the Inca empire into war and ruin and stealing their gold.

The ransom paid for Atahualpa alone was more than the entire yearly gold harvest of Europe combined.

Hart writes how the sudden increase in the amount of the metal in Europe led to the basis of a central banking system, where promissory notes could be sold in exchange for physical gold bullion.

He then goes on to explain the relationship between physical gold in vaults, exchange rates, and the adoption of the system of modern commerce, both private and personal. This eventually becomes what is known as the gold standard.

Hart also takes us through the excitement and the heady days of the American Gold Rush, detailing the horrors and the triumphs of that time.

Eventually, a decision is made in the highest echelons of power in the United States: the gold standard must go. Hart illustrates the resulting global turmoil in unaffected prose, reporting the events leading up to the abandonment of the standard by the rest of the world.

In today's world, the gold standard has been dead for some 40 years. But gold itself still holds sway over the financial imaginations of most people. It is what people want to invest in, without knowing exactly why or how. The next quarter of the book is where Hart explains the mysteries and the secrecy behind gold and its keepers. From America's presidential retreat Camp David to the hallowed halls of the London Bullion Market Association, we are given an insider's look at the mechanics of the gold market and how and why it fluctuates.

Hart ends the book with a sobering view of the life of the people who live and work on the periphery of gold discovery. Retrieving gold, as it turns out, is a hard, harsh life for the people at the bottom of the ladder.

In Africa, many gold deposits are mined using slave labour, forcibly recruited from whichever people happened to be handy when the latest militia rolled in. Even when the mining is legitimate, the miners are marginalised and most are kept living on the edge of poverty.

Gold is an extremely interesting read, thanks to Hart's talent for illustrating even abstract economics in a way that never becomes boring or confusing. For someone who doesn't always enjoy non-fiction, I found this book so fascinating that it was difficult to put it down.

For those looking to broaden their knowledge, combining lessons in economics, history and humanities, this book is highly recommended.

The Mysterious Underground Men

Posted: 12 May 2014 09:00 AM PDT

A book that leaves much to the imagination.

IN A 1988 interview, Japanese cartoonist Osamu Tezuka was asked what his proudest contribution to manga was. He said he is most proud of introducing tragic elements to the medium.

That reminded me of Astro Boy where a grieving father realises that a robot child cannot not fill the painful void left by his dead son. Indeed, Tezuka has a knack for masking layers of soul-crushing sadness underneath the innocent appeal of highly expressive anime eyes.

Which brings us to his 1948 effort The Mysterious Underground Men, now available in English for the first time.

The story begins with a bang, literally. A plane crashes and we see a man being carried away from the wreckage. With his dying breath, he makes his son John promise to build "a safer means of transportation". As young John weeps beside his father's deathbed, he vows to make "a wonderful machine" that will do exactly what Dad wants. Just like that, we're introduced to the first tragic element in this manga.

Later we meet a rabbit who stuns a group of scientists with its almost human behaviour. The scientists decide that the rabbit should go for an operation that will make it more human. There is a disturbing panel where the rabbit is strapped to a bed with surgeons holding sharp objects around it. As it won't sit still, someone screams "bring the needle!" and another simply says "chloroform".

The rest of the procedure is left to your imagination.

Tezuka safeguards his readers' sensitivity by hiding the graphic details of the operation behind closed doors. Once you've started thinking about it, though, it's horrifying enough.

The rabbit emerges as a "practically human" anthropomorphic being. Now called Mimio, he is able to speak and solve complicated math problems. Later he runs away from the clutches of the scientists and finds himself exposed to the outside world which only makes things worse, as the "outsiders" question his sense of being. To them, he is an odd talking rabbit in human clothes. Horrified by their desire to kill and eat him, Mimio flees again.

Our unlucky rabbit bumps into John and finds himself in safe company. John shares his plans to dig a tunnel for a rocket-powered train to go through the centre of the Earth. He deems his Trans-Earth train as "the world's fastest and safest mode of transportation". The Trans-Earth train is John's way of fulfilling his late father's wishes. Intrigued by the idea, Mimio asks if there is anything he can do to help. Mimio didn't get an answer but he gets to tag along as John begins constructing his Trans-Earth tunnel.

After some time passes with no news from John, his worried friend Uncle Bill assembles a team to look for the pair and they encounter a group of underground beings. It turns out that John's Trans-Earth plan somehow fits the agenda of an alien queen looking to take back the surface of the Earth.

I was not particularly concerned about John's dreams as I found myself caring more for Mimio's character. Even when he tries to do the right thing, he ends up getting pushed away by John and Uncle Bill. In one scene, he walks away in tears as Uncle Bill shouts: "You wanna be forgiven? Then turn into human!" Damn you, Uncle Bill.

The story also focuses a lot on Uncle Bill and John's efforts to take down the alien queen. I just wish we were given more panels with Mimio.

Published under the Ten-Cent Manga series dedicated to bringing back forgotten works by famous artists, The Mysterious Underground Men comes in a bite-size hardcover book. A note from the publisher explains that it has been printed in the manga's original size and colour. The panels, in shades of black and orange, are printed on brown paper. Which makes me feel really nostalgic as it feels like I am holding an actual copy of the book and not the reprinted version.

Overall, The Mysterious Underground Men is an exciting story that will appeal to science fiction fans. The book also ends with notes and an essay detailing Tezuka's inspiration for the story.

At RM99.90 per copy, casual readers might think twice about splurging on this. Die-hard Osamu Tezuka fans, on the other hand, would be proud to have this in their collection.

> The Mysterious Underground Men and Unity Vol 1: To Kill A King are available at the graphic novel section of Kinokuniya, Suria KLCC. Call 03-2164 8133 or e-mail or visit

Pivot Point

Posted: 12 May 2014 09:00 AM PDT

Technically two stories in one, Pivot Point is a gripping blend of fantasy, romance, drama and action.

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood, / and sorry I could not travel both."

Imagine if Robert Frost's illustrious poem, The Road Not Taken, were adapted into a young adult fantasy thriller, and you'd get Kasie West's debut novel Pivot Point. A gripping read, West's novel feels like Sliding Doors crossed with X-Men crossed with Twilight: a bizarre mix, but one that works surprisingly well.

Pivot Point tells the story of teenager Addie Cole, who is a "Paranormal": a member of a group of people with psychic powers. She has the ability to "Search" – whenever she is faced with a choice, she can look into the future and see both outcomes.

For all her life, Addie has lived a peaceful life in the Compound, a secret facility where Paranormals hide themselves from "Normals", or the rest of the world.

But when her parents announce they are getting divorced, Addie is faced with a difficult dilemma. Does she stay with stay her mother in the Compound? Or go with her father, who plans to live with the Normals?

Addie's ability to Search both options, however, only complicates matters.

She discovers that if she stays with her mother, she will encounter Duke, a charming star quarterback.

If she goes with her father, she will meet Trevor, a sensitive former athlete with a heart of gold.

Which outcome – and which guy – will she choose?

Making matters worse is the involvement of a sinister killer, who features in both options. With her knowledge of facts from two separate timestreams, Addie is the only person who can stop him. But will she make the right choices to do so?

Yes, I know this sounds like your average Twilight-style romance. Rest assured, however, while romance is an important part of Pivot Point, West balances it with just enough suspense and action to delight everyone.

That said, however, I foresee a lot of Team Duke and Team Trevor T-shirts in future....

Pivot Point's greatest strength is its excellent plotting. West frames her story as alternating chapters, creatively prefacing each chapter with a word containing either "PARA" or "NORM" to remind readers which timestream we are seeing. This style sounds like it could be confusing, but remarkably, it is very easy to follow.

Indeed, each timestream is very well fleshed out, completely distinct yet featuring enough similarities with the other to keep it interesting. Ghostbusters may have taught us never to cross the streams, but West shows us that it can be done, and excellently to boot.

And while they were both well done, I have to say Addie's adventures in the Normal World were slightly more interesting, due to the inherent suspense of her constantly having to hide her abilities from her Normal friends.

West does a good job with world-building: Addie's Paranormal world is an engaging one, where perceptives and mood controllers and manipulators and erasers all run around. Certain famous figures in history are revealed to secretly have psychic powers.

Unscrupulous psychics use their powers to gain advantages in the normal world. And Addie, already struggling with the normal teenage problems, must cope with her father being able to detect lies and her mother's psychic persuasion powers. It's all very fascinating.

The novel's characters are also well drawn. Addie is a good protagonist: a selfless and loyal friend, who despite being quite intelligent, can be extremely socially oblivious. Her best friend, the flighty Laila, is fun to read about, and both love interests are drawn out realistically and charmingly.

The story does slow down in the middle, as Addie goes on dates and gets to know both her love interests better.

While some of the romance scenes seem a bit like filler, there are some genuinely sweet moments in Addie's interactions with both Duke and Trevor.

Pivot Point also suffers a few minor story holes: for one thing, I am still unclear about the mysterious killer's motivations. Why was he only attacking girls? Was it a personal quirk, or was there something intrinsic to their nature?

Also slightly hard to swallow was a subplot involving one character hiding their true powers from everyone else, including a school board, who would have their personal records! You'd think in a world populated by clairvoyants, lie detectors and mind readers, someone would have discovered the truth sooner.

A sequel to the book, Split Second, was published earlier this year. While I personally feel it's unnecessary (I thought Pivot Point ended in a fantastic place), I would most definitely check it out, if only just to return to West's interesting world of Normals and Paranormals.

This is a solid, well-crafted read that will satisfy both romance and fantasy fans.


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