The Mummies of Ürümchi, Elizabeth Wayland Barber
The Mummies of Ürümchi discusses the rather Caucasian looking bodies found, naturally mummified by sand and salt, in the Tarim Basin, northwest China. These bodies were found with amazingly well-preserved textile grave goods, and that is the main focus of this book. Barber tries to discover where these people came from, linking their technology, customs and textiles to what we know of other related people’s.
I wasn’t expecting to read another book so strongly focused on textiles right after I read The Golden Thread, but I guess I came well-equipped. And I love that there’s colour plates with good photos of some of the discussed items — they haven’t fallen prey to the urge to just show the mummies, although several of the plates do.
A little out of date by now, yes, but fascinating.
I’ve found this author’s romances entertaining before, so I expected this to be a fairly solid entry in that vein. And indeed, it began as expected with the rather Gothic setting on the coast. The hero and heroine are immediately obvious, and the fact that they’ll end up together just as clear. It went more or less as I expected for the first part of the book: Christina arrived at the house, met her cousin, quickly realised he was the smuggler she met on the way to the house, gets sucked into what he’s doing…
It felt like it was all about to wrap up, at around 50% of the way through. And then it took a left turn and went off to do some more plot things… not very coherent plot things. The hero comes off extremely badly, being fickle and tasteless, while Christina shows very little backbone for someone previously so stubborn. Of course, things end as you expect, which is more than a little whiplashy after Ross’ inconsistency in the second half of the book.
Good morning, folks! I missed my STS post last week due to sporadic posting, which was mostly because my WordPress install (or rather, the security enabled by my host) occasionally decides to not allow me to insert images into my posts. But here I am again!
Also, I know I’m doing badly at returning comments and dropping by people’s blogs. I’m still adjusting to some schedule changes with work, and doing a bad job of keeping everything balanced. I haven’t forgotten you all!
Books received to review:
Books read in the last two weeks:
Reviews posted since the last roundup:
–How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill. Rather misleadingly titled: it’s more about how Irish monasteries copied Greek and Roman works so they weren’t lost. So a very specific definition of civilization. 2/5 stars –Beauty, by Robin McKinley. A relatively simple retelling of Beauty and the Beast, but effective! 4/5 stars –The Etruscans, by Lucy Shipley. Not a subject I knew much about, and this book makes a beautiful introduction to various Etruscan objects and what we understand about the people. 4/5 stars –The Lost Girls, by Sarah Painter. I’m honestly still pondering the review and rating, even though it’s already posted. There’s definitely interesting stuff, but I found the ending kind of unsatisfying, and the romance particularly so. But then, that’s not really what the book was doing, in the end… 3/5 stars –A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine. This didn’t quite work for me, partially because it’s very like two series I really love and admire. 3/5 stars –T. Rex and the Crater of Doom, by Walter Alvarez. Engaging and surprisingly riveting for me, given I knew the theory in quite a bit of detail. Alvarez is great at explaining the evidence. 4/5 stars –The Golden Thread, by Kassia St Clair. A history of fabric, from Viking sails to modern high performance fabric. Pretty riveting, from my point of view! 4/5 stars
This was exactly my kind of pop-history: a narrow focus on a particular subject in various different time periods and geographical locations. In this case, Kassia St Clair looks at the development and importance of fabric throughout history, from the earliest fabrics known to modern stretch fabrics used in the Olympics and high tech designs used on the Moon. The obvious fabrics like linen and silk and wool obviously get plenty of play here, with peeks at their influence on history (and the influence of history on them). I found it very absorbing, and enjoyed the way she gave a glimpse of the importance of fabrics in a lot of different contexts.
If you enjoy the Great British Sewing Bee, some of this will be familiar already, but there’s also plenty more to learn…
In this book, Walter Alvarez discusses the problem, process and solution in figuring out how the KT boundary extinction happened (yep, that’s the death of the dinosaurs). Despite the rather sensational sounding title, it’s a thoughtful book: aimed at the layperson, undoubtedly, but still discussing the process of obtaining evidence, and what that evidence means, in some detail. I found his writing incredibly clear, and though I’m not exactly the right person to judge, I think any intelligent and interested person should be able to follow his arguments.
It’s also oddly charming that instead of talking about Luis Alvarez (Nobel prizewinning scientist) by name, or even as “my father”, he’s called “Dad” throughout. “Dad thought up this idea… I spoke to Dad…” etc.
Obviously, Alvarez doesn’t present many downsides to his own theory, and I imagine there have been more refinements and adjustments since this was published in 1997, but it’s still a surprisingly compulsive read. The opening is surprisingly literary, revealing a love of Tolkien.
Arkady Martine’s debut novel is an exploration of identity, colonialism and loyalty, pitting the main character Mahit against a culture she loves — the culture of an empire waiting to swallow up her own home, Lsel Station. She’s the ambassador from Lsel Station, taking over after the unexpected death of her predecessor. She has one secret weapon: within her she carries a recording of her predecessor’s personality, partially integrated into her own, though somewhat out of date. At least, she has that weapon until something breaks, and she loses touch with that barely-integrated personality within her.
You can probably see from this description already why I was reminded powerfully of the work of Ann Leckie and Yoon Ha Lee. This is very much in their vein of work, and that sense of familiarity left me a little disengaged. You’re not going to beat Jedao in that role of a shadow from the past half-integrated into a new, younger, female body, and it’s just too darn similar!
There is a lot of entertaining and interesting stuff here, despite that sense of over-familiarity. I definitely enjoy Nineteen Adze and her power; Three Seagrass and her relationship with both Mahit and Twelve Azalea (“Reed” and “Petal”, ahahaha); all the little glimpses we get of how things work… There was also that big barely-defined threat in the background, so it’ll be interesting to see how things go on. I assume it’s going to pick back up the threads of the relationship between Mahit and Three Seagrass, as well; that barely started before it felt cut off by the ending.
In the end, though, I don’t know. I never got quite that engaged with it, though once I hit around 57%, I did enjoy it enough to keep on reading to the end in one go. The similarities to Ninefox Gambit and Ancillary Justice eclipsed a story I might’ve enjoyed on its own terms. I’ll probably pick up the next book, but… there’s definitely no compulsion to do that, for me.
The three ‘W’s are what are you reading now, what have you recently finished reading, and what are you going to read next, and you can find this week’s post at the host’s blog here if you want to check out other posts.
What are you currently reading?
Whose Body, again, because we’ve been rewatching Strong Poison and Have His Carcase while I was stitching something and needed familiar background noise. It’s as entertaining as always. Equally entertaining is T. Rex and the Crater of Doom, by Walter Alvarez. Sounds sensational, from the title, but it’s a pop-science explanation of the evidence for the KT boundary impact — better known as the extinction event in which the dinosaurs perished. It’s really easy to read; I’m enjoying it.
What have you recently finished reading?
I think the last thing was Sarah Painter’s The Lost Girls, which I just posted the review of. Other than that, it was my reread of Without a Summer; I love the way Kowal examines the issues of the historical period with a fantastical twist, and explores the implications of her changes.
What will you be reading next?
I should get stuck back into The Priory of the Orange Tree, honestly! Maybe I need to grab an ebook version, so I can read it in bed…
Let’s see if I can do this without any serious spoilers! The Lost Girls is a standalone fantasy with two protagonists. One, Rose MacLeod, is an ordinary student in Edinburgh, in her first year, living with her parents. Well, ordinary apart from the fact that she regularly has blackouts, which can last for days, even weeks, which nobody else around her seems to notice. And the other protagonist is Mal, a decidedly non-ordinary bloke who can see magic, hunts demons and does dodgy errands as a kind of freelance supernatural hitman.
There are strong resemblances to the story of Supernatural, from Mal’s upbringing by a strict father and his older brother, to the fact that bereft of his dad and then his elder brother too, he ends up going down a fairly dark and morally dubious path. He even thinks of himself as a hunter. Sam Winchester, is that you? Part of the resemblance is probably just that it’s completely unavoidable if you want to have humans hunting down supernatural creatures, but the parallels were a little eyebrow-raising.
Rose is a bit more of a non-entity, due to the flashbacks and the sketchy, blurry idea she has of who she is. It’s a bit weird, then, that there’s a romance subplot centering her, because there’s not much to build on.
Anyway, over the course of the novel, obviously the two get drawn together, as Mal looks for Rose to hand her over to the supernatural crime boss he’s contracting for, and also tries to figure out what’s happening to girls who are being murdered under mysterious circumstances. Rose finds herself remembering things she shouldn’t, and dreaming of girls dying… and tries to escape Mal, with the help of her friend Astrid. Inevitably, they end up together, and the story does a flip as it races toward the end.
I enjoyed reading this, for sure; I read it all in two sittings, and it kept me interested throughout. I wouldn’t say I was riveted, but to be fair to the book, it’s relatively rare these days for me to sit down and read straight through something, and that’s definitely worth considering. The ending, though, felt unsatisfying: it’s better when I think about it, but at first it struck me as wasting some of the stuff that had only barely been built up (the romance subplot, the characterisation of two characters in particular). I’m still unsure of quite how to rate the book, to be quite honest!
This is part of a series on “Lost Civilisations”, but Shipley pushes back on that idea from the start — Angkor Wat, for example, was never “lost” to local people; it was “discovered” by non-local people who acted as though locals had no connection to it, and this is a pattern that keeps repeating: Westerners find something monumental and assume that it has been “lost” and the civilisation that created it is dead, etc, etc. I don’t want to get into the truths and lies about that or debate it too much, but I found it interesting and refreshing to view history and archaeology this way.
The Etruscans are pretty enigmatic, and frequently portrayed as such, partly because we don’t have much insight into their language. The amount of Etruscan we have to work with is steadily growing as finds are made, though, and maybe someday soon we’ll know more. Shipley takes the reader on a tour of the finds we have got, focusing each chapter on a single find or site to tease out what it says about the Etruscans on various topics, including the position of women in their society (often portrayed as rather egalitarian). I enjoyed it very much: Shipley writes well and makes her points very clearly. It helps that the book has a lot of colour photographs as well, and the finds are well-chosen: I love the “Sarcophagus of the Spouses”, in particular.
Definitely what I was looking for. I wonder how good the other books in this series are…
Robin McKinley has written two retellings of the Beauty and the Beast fairytale; this one is the closest to what you might think of as the classic story (i.e. actually the version immortalised by Disney, albeit with touches like including Beauty’s sisters), and is also the youngest in terms of how it’s written. It follows the traditional set-up, and the retelling mostly relies on filling in the gaps — characterising Beauty’s sisters, playing with irony (Beauty is not, in fact, beautiful — at least not at first, though somehow she becomes very pretty over the course of the book), creating several secondary love stories — rather than being wildly transformative or creating a rich world. Rose Daughter… well, I’ll come to that when I’ve finished that reread!
I find it very enjoyable, partly because it’s kept fairly simple, and because I enjoy the characters. It’s an undemanding read, but it’s fun.