Thursday, January 28, 2016

January reads

The Death House Sarah Pinborough

Synopsis: Toby’s life was perfectly normal… until it was unravelled by something as simple as a blood test.

Taken from his family, Toby now lives in the Death House; an out-of-time existence far from the modern world, where he, and the others who live there, are studied by Matron and her team of nurses. They’re looking for any sign of sickness. Any sign of their wards changing. Any sign that it’s time to take them to the sanatorium. No one returns from the sanatorium.

My take: In tone and atmosphere this book reminded me a lot of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, which remains one of the most haunting books I've ever read. Pinborough doesn't yet have Ishiguro's writing chops, but she creates a dystopian-like world in which children and teenagers deal with issues (life, death, love, friendship) in ways that force them to both cling to their childhood and grow up far too quickly. The character of young and teen-aged boys is well done and believable. The air of suspense is not too heavy handed. The romance at the center of this novel is tenderly sweet, although its outcome is foreshadowed a little too much. However, the end of the novel was not, which was a feat in and of itself. It's apparently been compared to the Fault in Our Stars, and I suppose by subject matter that makes sense, but other than that it is quite different. And finally, but most importantly, Stephen King liked it.

Archivist Wasp: a novel by Nicole Kornher-Stace

Synopsis: Wasp's job is simple. Hunt ghosts. And every year she has to fight to remain Archivist. Desperate and alone, she strikes a bargain with the ghost of a supersoldier. She will go with him on his underworld hunt for the long-long ghost of his partner and in exchange she will find out more about his pre-apocalyptic world than any Archivist before her. And there is much to know. After all, Archivists are marked from birth to do the holy work of a goddess. They're chosen. They're special. Or so they've been told for four hundred years.

My take: First of all, it's impossible not to be intrigued by the title of this book. As soon as I read it, I was looking it up on Amazon. Then, there was the very intriguing opening line: The knife. She'd lost the knife. Now she was as good as dead. How could I not give this book a chance?

First, the good news. It was definitely an original when it comes to dystopian societies. Young girls trained to serve a goddess by capturing and killing ghosts from "the before" and recording (archiving) what happened. The book intrigued me enough to finish it. Several reviewers compared it to the Hunger Games, but really the similarities end once you say "Yeah, some young girls killed each other, and the winner becomes the Archivist until she in turn is killed." But the how and why of this ritual becomes a toss-off explanation at the end.

The setting and world-building wasn't particularly strong. A pseudo-religion in a post-apocalyptic world requires more than a landscape that hearkens to The Road. Neither Wasp nor her ally/sometimes antagonist Ghost are particularly fleshed out, which makes them hard to care about. The ending itself is unsatisfying and felt rushed. When all is said and done, I wanted more than I received.

The Darkest Part of the Forest Holly Black

Synopsis: A rollocking story of evil faeries and teenage angst in modern day USA. Hazel and her brother, Ben, live in Fairfold, where humans and the Folk exist side by side. Tourists drive in to see the lush wonders of Faerie and, most wonderful of all, the horned boy. But visitors fail to see the danger.

My take: So, I'm not exactly sure why I chose to read this book. I'm not inclined to read books about the Fair Folk, because they're always a little twee for my taste. That being said, I'm glad I read this one. Is it twee? Just a little. Part fairy tale, part fantasy adventure, with a couple of romances and bromances thrown in for extra flavor. Still there is a sharp, dark edge to it like the really old fairy tales that whet your appetite for the creepy stuff that follows. The world-building is excellent and not at all stereotypical. Hazel makes for a glorious knight, and her brother Ben's artistic bent and sexual orientation makes a nice twist. The author manages to work in the back story with a skill that we should all admire. It's not a particularly deep book, but it tells a damn good story.

I will undoubtedly be reading more of Ms. Black's work.

Forbidden Kimberley Griffiths Little

Synopsis: A sweeping, epic saga of romance and hardship, set against the dramatic backdrop of ancient Mesopotamia—perfect for fans of Cleopatra's Moon or the adult bestseller The Red Tent.

My take: I liked those two books, and I bought this one about a year ago. I didn't get around to reading it until this year. It was an amusing and easy to read, although I'm not tempted to buy book 2. I admit, I was a little annoyed that it so obviously ended on a cliff-hanger. The research/history is a bit sketchy. For example, it says the setting is Mesopotamia, but I couldn't actually place in time or location.

This is Where It Ends Marieke Nijkamp

Synopsis: 10:00 a.m.
The principal of Opportunity, Alabama's high school finishes her speech, welcoming the entire student body to a new semester and encouraging them to excel and achieve.
10:02 a.m.
The students get up to leave the auditorium for their next class.
The auditorium doors won't open.
                                     Someone starts shooting.

My take: Maybe because the author was born and raised in the Netherlands and school shooting seem to be a fairly American phenomenon, but this book didn't "feel" right. Many reviewers attributed this to multiple Points of View, but that's never bothered me. I think my main issue was that none of the voices were distinct; none made me care very much about whether they lived or died. Some narrators I couldn't remember from one scene shift to another. Then, there were the blog posts and tweets that were just there without adding much; I started skimming them half way through. The shooting scenes seemed rote: blood splatter and noise. Then, there was a sort of Kumbaya, we're all humans with feelings ending that did not seem at all realistic. I expected more and didn't get it.

When Breath Becomes Air Paul Kalanithi

Synopsis: A young neurosurgeon faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living? in his posthumously published novel

My take:  This book merited its own review. See Why writers must read When Breath Becomes Air.

Monday, January 25, 2016

How to build a pyramid

Before Hatshepsut: Early Egyptian Queen Revealed in Hieroglyphs

About 60 drawings and hieroglyphic inscriptions, dating back around 5,000 years, have been discovered at a site called Wadi Ameyra in Egypt’s Sinai Desert. Carved in stone they were created by mining expeditions sent out by early Egyptian pharaohs archaeologists say.

They reveal new information on the early pharaohs. For instance, one inscription the researchers found tells of a queen named Neith-Hotep who ruled Egypt 5,000 years ago as regent to a young pharaoh named Djer.

Particles could reveal clues to how Egypt pyramid was built

An international team of researchers said Sunday they will soon begin analyzing cosmic particles collected inside Egypt's Bent Pyramid to search for clues as to how it was built and learn more about the 4,600-year-old structure.

Work underway to uncover secrets of Egypt's Dahshur and Khufu pyramids

Although no discoveries have yet been made, scans have revealed several anomalies which indicate that a discovery could be on the horizon, said Egypt's minister of antiquities

London’s Best Kept Secrets: The Petrie Museum

The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at University College London is one of the world's leading collections of Egyptian and Sudanese artifact's and contains over 80,000 ancient relics. London Calling was given a personal tour by curator Dr Alice Stevenson.

Dr Stevenson discussing the museum's history and founding and her fascination with Egyptology.

Thoth’s Storm: New Evidence for Ancient Egyptians in Ireland?

When ancient Egypt and Ireland are spoken about in the same breath it usually results in the rolling of eyes, polite exits and the sound of murmurs citing pseudo-history and new age babble.
At least, that used to be the case.
Recent discoveries in DNA research have added to already verified archaeological finds to present a scenario that is now more difficult to dismiss.


 Papyrus scroll from Herculaneum, which was carbonized in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, undergoes part of the CT scan process to help decipher the writing contained within the scrolls, in an image from the University of Kentucky's Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments taken in 2009. Dr. Brent Seales, a pioneer in ancient document scanning techniques, was able to recover a legible portion of the scroll, compiled from 10,000 separate CT slices; researchers in Germany hope to use similar techniques to reveal the content of the Elephantine scrolls currently in the collection of the Egyptian Museum in Berlin.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Why writers must read When Breath Becomes Air

You that seek what life is in death,
   Now find it air that once was breath.
Baron Brooke Fulke Greville, "Caelica 83"
A young neurosurgeon faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living? in his posthumously published novel, When Breath Becomes Air.
“I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything,” he wrote. “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’” 
Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon and writer. He graduated from Stanford with a B.A. and M.A. in English literature and a B.A. in human biology. He earned an M.Phil in the history and philosophy of science and medicine from Cambridge and graduated cum laude from the Yale School of Medicine, where he was inducted into the Alpha Omega Alpha national medical honor society. He died in March 2015, while working on this book.

This man was not like you and me. Clearly a genius, or at the very least driven to succeed in ways many of us are not, or as one reviewer said "a privileged person who was singularly driven to the top of his chosen profession." We all should be so driven.

He was equally at home in the world of words and the world of science, which led to some of the following accolades among reviewers:
“Rattling, heartbreaking, and ultimately beautiful...'"
". . .split my head open with its beauty.”
A gift to literature. . ."
Kalanithi writes well. Very well. No doubt about it. Better than many people who call themselves writers. Better than many published authors. That being said, he's not Shakespeare. Don't read this if you want to learn to write better. There are plenty of other (maybe too many other) books for that.

This book makes you ponder the BIG questions. Life. Death. Love. Marriage. Children. What is important? What does it mean to be human and mortal? These are important questions to ponder for all of us who mean to live a meaningful life; if you intend to write a meaningful book, you cannot ignore them. But they're also not the reason I think writers should read this book.

Read this book because this man wanted to write it. He wanted to write this book so badly, he wrote it while he was dying. He didn't use imminent death as excuse to stop writing.

As a writer with writerly friends, I've heard and uttered most of the excuses writers have for not writing. Let me elaborate. Just recently, I spent a month out of town visiting my children, and I didn't write much. i had all the excuses down pat.  "Well, a lot of friends wanted to see me." "I need to talk with my kids." "The chairs were too hard too sit for long." "There's so much going on with the holidays and all." At least I didn't trot out that tired old tart, "The muse just wasn't visiting me in December 2015."

Let me be perfectly clear. IF I had been facing a terminal disease instead of holiday ennui, I'm pretty sure I might have been curled up in a ball and cried instead of working on my novel.

Now, consider this paragraph from the afterward to When Breath Becomes Air, written by Paul's wife Lucy Kalanithi.
During the last year of his life, Paul wrote relentlessly, fueled by purpose, motivated by a ticking clock. He started with midnight bursts when still a neurosurgery chief resident, softly tapping away on his laptop as he lay next to me in bed; later he spent afternoons in his recliner, drafted paragraphs in his oncologist's waiting room, took phone calls from his editor while chemotherapy dripped into his veins, carried his silver laptop everywhere he went. When his fingertips developed painful fissures because of his chemotherapy, we found seamless, silver-lined gloves that allowed use of a trackpad and keyboard. Strategies for retaining the mental focus needed to write, despite the punishing fatigue of progressive cancer, were the focus of his palliative-care appointments. He was determined to keep writing.
I started and finished Breath three days after the death of David Bowie and after watching the Lazarus video. All I could think about for days was these two men show us what it means to be an artist. Nothing. NOTHING, not even imminent death, stops the work. We need to keep that idea in front of us like a beacon carried in the hands of giants. We owe it to ourselves (if not them) to follow their example.

Read this book. Watch this video. Write like tomorrow is uncertain, because it is.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Myth-shattering crocodile mummies in color

Met exhibit shatters 19th-century myths about ancient Egypt

For centuries, ancient Egypt seemed a marvel of unchanging continuity to professional and amateur scholars alike, a society defined by tradition and cultural stasis. As late as 1975, an architecture critic wrote of its tombs and temples what was generally believed of the culture as a whole: “In the architecture of the Nile, although the hand never fails, the stimulus of intellectual curiosity, the tension that springs from avid enquiry, is often absent.

Egyptian Museum finally gets its day in social media spotlight

The Egyptian Museum in Cairo is home to the largest and most comprehensive collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities in the world, it has always been recognized as one of Egypt’s must-visits.

However, with fewer tourists visiting Cairo in recent years, the museum’s prominence became overlooked in comparison with other tourist attractions in Egypt and around the world.

How the MediaLab restored color on The Temple of Dendur

One of the goals of the MediaLab is to explore the use of design and emerging technologies to improve the museum experience. Projection mapping, also known as spatial augmented reality, is a technology that can turn physical objects and buildings into a surface for projected light. This technique creates an enhanced experience for the audience by combining digital information with real objects. While the MediaLab was exploring how projection mapping could be used in the Museum, an opportunity arose to collaborate with the Department of Egyptian Art.

Exhibition for recovered artifacts
A temporary exhibition for recently recuperated artifacts that have been stolen and illegally smuggled out of Egypt is set to open on Thursday at the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir.


In our second interview with Dr. Kara Cooney, we begin with some whiskey and a quick update on the search for Nefertiti. Follow that with more whiskey, a discussion of Akhenaten, the psychology (or psychopathy) of ancient rulers, hidden knowledge, and round it out with a discussion of incest, harems and the role of royal women in Egypt. Enjoy!

Conservation of a crocodile mummy 

Take an in-depth look at the conservation processes involved in getting a crocodile mummy ready for display for the first time in 75 years! You can see this enormous mummy in a free display in Room 3 until 21 February 21,

Monday, January 11, 2016

Where's my obelisk and other mysteries?

#BlastFromThePast: 10 vintage photos of Ancient Egyptian obelisks

An obelisk is a monumental column carved from a single block of stone, and in the case of Ancient Egyptians, they were created to explain how the gods came into being and how pharaohs came into power.

There are currently a number of obelisks dating back to different times in Ancient Egyptian history that we know of today, many of which are located around the world, including in France, Turkey, Italy, and the United Kingdom.

Kiya - The Most Mysterious Woman of Amarna

The only thing we really know for certain about Kiya is her name, written in the forms kiya, kiw, kia, kaia, and that she was a wife of Akhenaten titled The Great Beloved Wife.  Much information about Kiya was lost over time and nowadays information about her is mixed with the biographies of Nefertiti and other women of Amarna, leading to an air of mystery about who Kiya really was.

Treasure trove reveals how the ancient Egyptians really lived

A treasure trove of artefacts is to give an insight into the day-to-day life of ordinary ancient Egyptians.

Items such as jewellery, perfume bottles and funeral masks are going on display at a new London exhibition at Two Temple Place to reveal a side of the ancient civilisation rarely portrayed in popular culture.

Artwork Orange Mashes Up Egypt and Marge Simpson

What might a future civilization think of artifacts from 20th-century America? That is the question at the center of Orange Dust, a series of pseudo-artifacts created by artist Troy Gua. The title of the exhibition—now in the final month of its three-month run at BONFIRE Gallery—alludes to both the sands of Egypt and the coating of Nacho Cheese Doritos, fitting for a collection that mashes American symbolism with ancient Egyptian aesthetics for a smart, satiric look at contemporary values, including how we evaluate our own art and history through a skewed lens.

Ancient Egyptian Beer Vessels Unearthed in Tel Aviv, Israel

Archaeologists conducting a salvage excavation in downtown Tel Aviv, Israel, have discovered ancient Egyptian beer vessels, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) recently announced.

In related news, see Pharaoh Ale: Brewing a Replica of an Ancient Egyptian Beer

Queen Khentakawess III's tomb found in Egypt

Archaeologists in Egypt have unearthed the tomb of a previously unknown queen, Egyptian officials say. The tomb was found in Abu-Sir, south-west of Cairo, and is thought to belong to the wife or mother of Pharaoh Neferefre who ruled 4,500 years ago. Egyptian Antiquities Minister Mamdouh el-Damaty said that her name, Khentakawess, had been found inscribed on a wall in the necropolis.


Dr. Nicholas Reeves, an Egyptologist and one of the foremost experts on the Valley of the Kings, recently made worldwide headlines due to his search for hidden chambers within the tomb of Tutankhamun and his arguments that these long forgotten rooms may contain the burial of Queen Nefertiti.

To discuss his theories, Dr. Reeves will be visiting The Discovery of King Tut exhibition in New York for an exclusive gallery talk at 1pm, on Monday, January 18th, 2016 – Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

I wish I could be there for this one!

Friday, January 8, 2016

Goodbye, Hello! The journey continues

2015 was a good year. Some highlights:
  • The rewrite of my novel, Queen of Heka is within 50 pages of being done.  Many thanks to my editor, Jason Sitzes, who is the cold, clear voice in my ear when I get silly. A few agents and one publisher have requested a full manuscript.
  • Started seriously researching and thinking about the second novel, Reeds of Time.
  • "Pulled the trigger" and became a part time employee so I can devote more time to writing. I'm not used to the new schedule. Yet. It still rather feels like I'm on vacation. 
  • This blog grew from 400 visits in 2014 to 15,000+ this year as well as becoming a featured item in Tour Egypt and getting a "like" from Zawi Hawass. 
  • As always, the support of my fantastic children and friends continue to lift me up.

So, what's up for 2016?
  • Finish those final 50 pages. Duh!
  • Establish a better writing schedule, particularly for those extra two days a week I now have.
  • Simplify, simplify, simplify. I spent  New Year's day with an old friend who told me a bit about moving her parents into a nursing home and the even more stressful task of dealing with a lifetime of family possessions. We agreed this is not a tradition we want to pass on. Even before the holidays and this chat, I felt the weight of my possessions. I have boxes of things I haven't opened for two moves. Seriously. I need to lighten the load.
  • Move up to 20,000 visits to my blog in 2016. Aim low; achieve high is my motto.
  • Get back to my garden. When I left Texas for Illinois, one of the things I looked forward to was easier gardening. While I planted a few herbs and other things, gardening definitely took a back seat to settling in. One of the first things on the 2016 list is to plant blueberry bushes beneath the Eye of Horus. As this photo shows, that area is a bit bland.
  • Prepare for and enjoy the two writing conferences I've signed up for this year with my fellow writer and conference attendee, Ellan.
    • I am beyond excited about the Iceland Writers Retreat in April. I've wanted to go to Iceland since I helped my son with a sixth grade research project. This seemed to good an opportunity to pass up. My classes look amazing.

      Neel Mukherjee: Changing the point of view  How does a writer denote this? When we read something in a novel, through whose eyes are we seeing that world, the writer’s, the narrator’s, or a character’s? What marks the distinction between these three? Should a scene stick to a single point of view or can you have a roving point of view, moving from character to character within one scene or even within one paragraph?

      GerĂ°ur KristnĂ˝: Mythologies Classical mythology and the great body of works founded on myths from the Mediterranean formed the motive reservoir of Western literature for centuries. With better knowledge of other cultures and traditions, modern writers began to use non-occidental mythologies as a source of inspiration and the narrative power of the myth often enables them to shape their stories and transform the mundane to the metaphysical. Using the pre-Christian Nordic myths preserved in the Prose Edda or Snorri’s Edda from the 13th Century, the participants will rewrite an ancient story of their choice in a modern context.

      Kate Williams: Finding your voice in the historical novel The historical novel is currently enjoying a renaissance. We are fascinated by the past. But how can we best capture the voices of the past? What are our responsibilities to historical fact and veracity? What about the sources - if we can't find any, can we invent them? Unless we have someone's private diary, we can't say exactly what they are thinking - but a novel requires us to go deep into our protagonist's consciousness. And can we explore the consciousness of someone who lived in a completely different time? This workshop explores how to write a historical novel, considering questions of research and sources, style, construction, voice - and most of all, how to get into that historical person's head.

      Neel Mukherjee. Addition and Subtraction One of the great strengths of fiction, unsurpassed by any other form, is its capacity for building a world. How does one describe a world in all its details and density? What did Henry James mean when he talked of the ‘solidity of specification’ in his essay, ‘The Art of the Novel’? How much detail is enough and when is it too much, or too scant? How much should a writer put in and how much should she take out? This workshop will address the subject of physical details and world-building.

      Miriam Toews: First-Person Fiction When your narrator is also the protagonist in your novel, there is greater pressure on the author to write with distinctive style, to possess a strong character voice. The first-person narrator is always an insufficient witness to the story he or she sets out to tell, but how to acknowledge this in a way that helps the reader interpret the meaning of what is related? In this workshop we will discuss what makes a first-person narration work.
    • Also excited to participate in the Historical Novel Society conference in Oxford, England, where we can expect to see a reenactment of the Norman Invasion. The list of workshops is not yet available, but IT'S OXFORD. We're taking a side trip to Highclere Castle, which most people know as Downton Abbey. While I'm a big Downton fan, I have another reason for going. Highclere is the family home of the  Earl of Carnarvon. The Fifth Early of Carnovan financed the Tut excavation. I'm hoping to see the Egyptian Room. Afterwards, we're going to Scotland or Italy.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Demon Star, dusty mummy & mud brick Manhattan

Ancient Egyptian papyrus contains earliest record of 'demon star'

It's 92.25 light-years away, and they still spotted it.

Scientists studying a 3,200 year-old papyrus document from ancient Egypt think they've found the earliest record of the variable star Algol - a three-star system that's some 92.25 light-years away from Earth. It appears that not only could the Egyptians see the star without the aid of a telescope, its cycle influenced their religious calendars.

Mummy Unwrapping Results in a Dusty End

It could be the stuff of horror movies - an Egyptian mummy, preserved for over 2,500 years, meets an untimely fate at the hands of the protagonists.  Except in this case, the mummy in question was not about to reek havoc on unsuspecting bystanders.  It was however unlucky enough to have been unearthed in the nineteenth century and subjected to the common practice of investigation by unwrapping:

The Truth in the Search for Nefertiti

In a very flawed article from the Archaeology News Network, the former head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, Dr. Zahi Hawass disputes Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves theory that the tomb of Nefertiti will be found behind the painted walls of Tutankhamun's tomb, in particular the north and west walls. Part of Dr.Hawass's concern is for the preservation of the paintings which would have to be removed.


More than 2,000 years ago, the city of Naukratis was a major Greek trading port on a branch of the Nile River. Archaeologists had thought that they had found everything there was to find in the ruins of this ancient city. But a new excavation by the British Museum has turned up thousands of new artifacts and revealed an even bigger, bustling city, of "tower houses" that stood three to six stories tall.
Naukratis was "a mud-brick Manhattan" with a population of around 16,000, the project's leader told the Guardian

Egyptian Statues Revealed in Ancient Shrines

Six rock cut statues have been discovered within 18th Dynasty shrines in Egypt, Antiquities Minister Mamdouh el-Damaty announced.

The 3,400-year-old statues were found at Gebel el Sisila, a site north of Aswan known for its stone quarries on both sides of the Nile. Blocks used in building almost all of ancient Egypt's great temples were cut from there.

Tech Wizardry Solves Mysteries of Egypt’s Royal Mummies

ROUGHLY 400 MILES from the Great Pyramids, ancient pharaohs of the New Kingdom lay at rest in the Valley of Kings. Nondescript chambers built into the valley’s dusty hills hold royal remains, buried between 1550 and 1070 BC. The crypts were designed to deter robbers, and for the most part, they worked—which makes it difficult for today’s archaeologists to find them and identify their inhabitants.

The Palermo Stone: Key to Old Kingdom Egypt Royal Families

The Palermo Stone is the most famous piece of seven known fragments of what must have been an enormous basalt stele called (by scholars) "The Royal Annals of Ancient Egypt". The Royal Annals stele was probably carved during the early Fifth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, Egypt, between about 2450-2300 BC.

King Amenhotep III statue accidently recovered in Edfu 

A black granite statue of King Amenhotep III was found by chance in a residential house in Al-Nakhl village in Edfu, Aswan.

Good on them: ISIS Books and Gifts changes its sign but not its name

ISIS Books & Gifts isn't changing its name, but the owners of the Englewood bookstore are updating the logo and signage.