Book Review: THE ANCIENT CELTS builds a framework for Ancient European history

The Ancient Celts audiobook occupied my listening time during a couple of recent weekend road trips, and it turned out to be enjoyable and informative.

The Ancient Celts is an excellent historical framework through which to view and discuss the identity and meaning of the term Celtic and the ancient peoples to whom it can be applied. This is the type of history where author Barry Cunliffe strays into several other topics in order to build his primary case.

Ancient Greece, Rome, the Scythians, and Phoenicians all make appearances as Cunliffe traces a millennium of migrations and conflicts across Europe involving various Celtic groups. Cunliffe focuses on the material archaeological record for his study, but he does not hesitate to pull in writings of the Classical era, and previously established linguistic evidence to build his case.

Cunliffe’s ultimate case is that the Celts can be identified as a distinct cultural and linguistic group from the Middle Danube region from the end of the Bronze Age, who had a stark impact on the Classical civilizations of Europe and spread as far south as Egypt, as far East as modern Turkey, and as far west as the Atlantic coast of Europe, and whose cultural remnants can still be seen today.

Interestingly, Cunliffe bookends his study with discussions on the revival of Celtic identity over the last few centuries, and what this might mean in relation to the Ancient Celts he tries to understand. He posits the subjective question of who the Celts were and who they are today, and answers with a surprisingly simple, yet effective statement: anyone who considers themselves Celtic, whether that is through spoken language, material culture, or more ephemeral forms of identity.

Steve D

Book Review: THE GATHERING STORM sets WoT series back on track

The Gathering Storm may be the best novel of The Wheel of Time series to this point (book 12 of 14). This is the first book Brandon Sanderson co-authored after Robert Jordan’s passing, and it is simply incredible.

While Sanderson’s own writing style is markedly different from that of Jordan’s, the climactic narratives of two of the most important characters in the series are what stand out about this volume. The Gathering Storm soars as it brings the arcs of two of its primary characters to stunning crescendos.

Sanderson’s writing style is more befitting a modern fantasy audience, which is likely why he is one of the most popular fantasy authors of the last decade, if not longer. Compared to Jordan’s verbose prose that strains the limits of sentence structure and pays homage to the classical high fantasy authors that preceded him, Sanderson’s writing is concise and emotive. I don’t necessarily prefer Sanderson’s writing style to Jordan, but his punchier phrasing lends a sense of urgency to the story.

The Gathering Storm is ultimately the first part of a three-part conclusion to this epic series. Sanderson wrote it this way intentionally, taking Jordan’s outline for his finale, A Memory of Light, and splitting it into three volumes to capture all of the threads that Jordan wanted to weave into the final tapestry.

This is seen most starkly in the stories of Rand and Egwene. I will not go into detail, but I will say that The Gathering Storm really focuses on these two, separated geographically by hundreds of leagues or more, and narratively by nine or ten books, but linked as they each approach the Last Battle. It can easily be argued that they are the two most important characters in the series, and Sanderson and Jordan emphasize their place by weaving their first steps in the final act of the series together, independently, but in duality.

Several of the dragging plot lines of the middle part of this series are also tied off, often in ways that are surprising or shocking, but that serve the story and the characters. I’ve questioned all along how such a sprawling series could be ended cleanly, and with two books to go I can already see the blueprint. Sanderson utilizes all of the characters Jordan created, the minute storylines he laid out, to push the main groups of characters in the same direction: towards the Last Battle.

The reader feels the impending doom of this legendary confrontation laced throughout the book, throughout each character’s interactions with the others. Everyone, including the reader, knows what’s coming, and we collectively dread the moment and quiver in anticipation. The Gathering Storm is triumphant, even as it tells of only the opening salvos of the final conflicts to come.

I’ve already started reading Towers of Midnight.

Steve D

January Write Day: Keep Plugging Away

Man, another month, another year. December was a solid month. Our holidays were festive with plenty of time spent with family. We also got to experience our first real Christmas through our oldest son, who is three and at the perfect age to get excited for Santa and presents and Christmas lights and all that.

It was a decent month on the goals front as well.

Last Month’s Goals

  1. Write 8,000 words for New Earth.
  2. Read through Uprooted.
  3. Read 3 books.

So how did I do?

Write 8,000 words?

Not quite. I tried to cram a bunch of writing into the final week of the month and came up short at just over 7,000 words. Still a decent output, overall. The first half of December had me stressing a bit about getting everything ready for our holiday celebrations, which knowingly kept me away from writing. I thought I could make up for it in the final week, but no such luck.

I still did all right, though.

New Earth, The Herb Witch Tales #2 is progressing nicely at around 15,000 words, and I’ve hit a stretch where I already have a lot of content from my first draft I can pull from. That should help me stay on track and catch up a bit this month. I just want to get off to a stronger start and not fall behind again.

I did start to find a writing schedule again, slotting in time right after putting my oldest to bed, and then knuckling down on the weekends for bigger word count gains.

Read through Uprooted?

I seriously forgot about this goal. December was a busy month! I definitely want to complete this read-through, so perhaps I’ll have to pay to print it out — all 70-some pages of it – so I can focus on it when I’m away from my computer.

Read 3 books?

I’m going to say yes…? But let me check my Goodreads first.

Success! I finished three books in December, including book 12 of The Wheel of Time series, The Gathering Storm. Look out for that review next week. Spoiler alert: I loved it.

I also achieved my Goodreads 2021 goal of reading 24 books. That may sound paltry based on a lot of the book blogs I read, but that’s a lot for me, damn it! I’m aiming for 26 in 2022.

Goals for January

I feel like I rushed through this post, but this might be a good indication of where my head is at currently. I have a lot I want to achieve in the next few months, primarily finishing a solid draft of New Earth, and I just want to get down to it.

  1. Write 9,000 words. This feels achievable to me based on my writing progress the last two weeks, and it may be the start of escalating writing goals to start the year off. We’ll see how it goes.
  2. Read 3 books. Currently waiting for my copy of Towers of Midnight to arrive 😀
  3. Start working out again. My exercise routine really fell through the last couple months, so I want to get back on track. This is an open-ended goal for now until I can establish a decent routine again.

Happy New Year!

Steve D

Book Review: THE LAST KINGDOM and engrossing characters and story

After years of watching the show and hearing from my father-in-law that I would love Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Stories series — now more famously known as The Last Kingdom series — I finally listened to the first story, The Last Kingdom, on Audible.

This was my first introduction to Cornwell’s writing, having watched all of the TV adaptation of “The Last Kingdom” previously. Even though I came into this book with inflated expectations, I was definitely not disappointed.

The Last Kingdom follows young Uhtred, the son of an English noble, from the time he is kidnapped by a Danish earl, Ragnar, until he becomes a man. This first installment is effectively a coming-of-age story, where Uhtred learns how to live like a Dane and how to be a true warrior. He learns early on that he has a strong lust for battle and killing, and he chooses the warrior’s path for himself, becoming caught between his Saxon heritage and his Danish upbringing.

Cornwell’s story is exciting, and his plot is punctuated by thrilling action sequences and scenes of dialogue that do most of the heavy lifting in revealing the characters. Many of the names would be familiar to those who had watched the titular Netflix show, but the story is far more in depth.

I thoroughly enjoyed seeing more of Uhtred’s early years, which are largely glossed over in the show. The reader gets to see more of the relationship between Uhtred and Ragnar, which truly becomes a father-son bond as the young Uhtred grows. This story lays a strong foundation for Uhtred to constantly be pulled between the two halves of his heart — the half that wants to help Ragnar the Younger in avenging the death of their father, and the half that wants to reclaim his birthright as lord of Bebbanburg.

This story also sets up what is sure to be a fiery relationship/rivalry between Uhtred and King Alfred of Wessex, as Alfred ensnares Uhtred deeper and deeper in the politics of Wessex (and his liege-ship), and Uhtred tries to angle for a chance to see his homeland in Northumbria reclaimed. The dialogue scenes between Uhtred and King Alfred crackle with tension.

If I had one gripe against this story, it’s that I don’t know if I would enjoy it as much if I didn’t already know the characters. Being able to see the actors’ faces in my mind as I listened brought this story to life in a way that many others cannot be.

Can’t wait to start the next one.

Steve D

Book Review: INTERIOR CHINATOWN and commentary on Othering in America

Charles Yu exposes a ton of insight into what it’s like to be a “Generic Asian Man” in America. In Interior Chinatown he tells the story of an actor, Willis Wu, trying to work his way up the ladder, advancing from Generic Asian Man #3, to #2, through several intermediary roles, until at last he gets the chance to play the dream role: Kung Fu Guy.

That is all Willis thinks he is capable of becoming, a trope of cinema and a caricature of himself.

Through this experience, and with some much needed help from his family, Willis comes to realize that Kung Fu Guy is still just another version of Generic Asian Man, just like Old Asian Man or Asian Seductress.

In a strange but emotionally stirring scene in which Willis is “on trial” for boxing himself in racially and socially, he (and the reader) learn some tragic tidbits about how the US has treated immigrants from East Asia, and especially China throughout its history.

This is yet another side of history that we don’t often find in American textbooks; policies like the Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which took steps to effectively ban all immigration to the US from China. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first of its kind to ban immigration based on race or country of origin. There were also a series of Supreme Court rulings in the 1920s which sought to exclude Asians from naturalization in the US. (Read more here).

Ultimately, Willis realizes that he is playing into a system which exacerbates his own place as Asian Man; a role which continues to flummox American society at large, even after 200 years of immigration (particularly from China).

I found the structure of this story odd at first. It read like a TV script, with characters delivering lines to each other in such a way that it was difficult to tell at times when Willis was actually acting in a scene for one of his roles, versus when he was “playing” a role as Asian Man in his everyday life. This storytelling mechanism is intentional, of course, and does lend to the author’s crucial commentary, in the form of the protagonist’s monologues.

Overall enjoyed this, but more than anything, Yu makes me want to read more about the Chinese American experience, and the US’s abominable history, distant and not so distant, in this (and many other) regards.

Steve D

Book Review: KNIFE OF DREAMS sets up an epic final act for THE WHEEL OF TIME

I recently finished reading Knife of Dreams, The Wheel of Time #11. You may remember that in my previous entries about some of the books in this series, I have lamented the plodding pace of the narrative, especially for particular point-of-view characters.

After a few books’ worth of dragging plotlines, Knife of Dreams finally brings some real momentum to this series, and ties off a few narrative threads in the process.

For the most part, the reader spends several chapters with a particular character at a time, watching their narrative unfold in more depth. Unlike in previous books, however, there is actually forward progress with the main characters, and Jordan even returns to each character towards the end of the book to see where they’ve landed.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and was glad to find it spent the most time with only three of the primary characters: Mat, Perrin, and Elayne. There are check-in sections with Rand, Egwene, and others, mostly serving as compelling placeholders for things to come in the next book(s).

The three or four smaller plot lines that are all tied off in this momentous installment is clearly guiding the reader and each of the characters towards one thing: the Last Battle. With only three books left in the series — I say that as if each book wasn’t more than 600 pages — Knife of Dreams is definitely setting up the end game for the series.

I’m not ready to forgive the narrative slog that was books 7 through 10 (especially 10). I can see that groundwork that Jordan was laying for the mini-climaxes in previous books. I’m just not convinced that it needed to take as long as it did to get to this point.

Anyway, I feel like I’m over the hump of the middle part of this series, and I’m ready to jump into the final three books, which were completed by Brandon Sanderson after Robert Jordan’s death. The Gathering Storm (book 12) will be my first introduction to Sanderson’s writing, so I’m excited to see how he adapts Jordan’s story and narrative style. Then I can start reading Sanderson’s own work!

Steve D

October Write Day: Shifting Gears

September was a bit of a crazy month. Between work picking up a lot and a week-long beach trip, I found little time for writing. I knew I wasn’t going to write while at the beach–not with a toddler and an infant to entertain. We had a nice time, though, and I wasn’t ready to get back to normal life.

September was fun, but goals-wise, maybe my worst month on record? Let’s get this over with.

Last Month’s Goals

  1. Finish current draft of Uprooted and write 5,000 words.
  2. Read through Uprooted.
  3. Read 4 books.

Finish current draft / write 5,000 words?

Neither. I wrote 2,500 words in September, and a good chunk of that came in the last two days of the month, after we had returned from vacation and settled back into our daily routine. That also was not enough to finish my draft. Based on progress I’ve made so far in October, I think this draft of Uprooted will finish around 48,000 words, which places this firmly in novella territory.

I’ll talk about this in my actual goals for the month, but I’m trying to finish this draft as quickly as possible so I can do some read-throughs before November. I don’t anticipate any large-scale revisions from this point. I definitely want my editor and maybe some readers to read the story and provide feedback, but at this point, I like how this story ended up. I just want to tighten it up.

Before I get there, though, I need to write the second draft of New Earth, my second story in The Herb Witch Tales. More on that below.

Read through Uprooted?

Obviously not, since I still have to finish the thing.

Read four books?

I finished three books in September, which is actually better than I thought, but they were all audiobooks. I now have two nonfiction books that I’ve started and not been motivated to continue on any consistent basis, even though I find both interesting.

So I started reading Knife of Dreams, book 11 of The Wheel of Time. I’m more than halfway through already, and I may jump straight into the next one. This installment already feels more weighty, plot-wise, than the middle books of the series, and I know that book 12 begins the home stretch of Brandon Sanderson’s work on the series. I also got excited thinking about the upcoming Wheel of Time TV series.

In short, I’m pretty locked into this series at the moment.

Goals for October

  1. Finish current draft of Uprooted. As mentioned above, I have to finish this draft this month. I can’t publish these stories by the end of this year without basically a miracle, but I still have to move to the next step.
  2. Read through Uprooted and takes note. I’m giving myself the first two weeks or so of the month to finish my draft, whereupon I will print it and begin to mark it up with red pen. This should help me see what needs to be done to the story at large before moving on. If I have time before the end of the month, I’ll start to make revisions–not rewrites, mind you. I think this story has moved past the need for rewrites. Once I’ve done that, I will pass it on to at least one reader to look at for me. I have someone in mind, but let me know if you’re interested.
  3. Prepare for National Novel Writing Month. Once I complete the read-through/revisions of Uprooted, I intend to move on to my second draft of New Earth, the second story in The Herb Witch Tales. Between unused sections of Uprooted and the rough draft I wrote of New Earth earlier this year, I probably have 30,000 words worth of content to use. It’s time to get this story into gear, and NaNoWriMo will be the perfect time to do it.

Steve D

Wheel of Time TV Series Pre-Hype Thoughts

I have not been paying attention to the developments and under-current of hype surrounding Amazon Prime’s The Wheel of Time series. I sort of forgot that it was coming out this year until I saw the below trailer. I haven’t looked at casting choices (although I recognize a few faces), I haven’t read any theory-blogs about how they’re going to tell this massive, sweeping story on-screen, and I have no idea if it will be any good.

And I’m slowly getting more and more excited for this series to debut.

I think that’s largely because I know so little about The Wheel of Time show. I’ve read exactly one piece about this show over on MLS Weech’s blog, which got me excited and inspired me to write this post. I have no pre-conceived notions of what this show should be. I just want it to be good.

I also don’t want them to speed-run to the series finale in 20 hours. This is the type of series that deserves several seasons of earnest plot- and character-building before they streamline the ending. However, unless Amazon is planning to do this for 25 seasons, this series just feels too massive to be done faithfully on TV. (If any streamer could commit to a 25-year plan for a series, it’s probably Amazon.) I’m honestly excited to see how they fit that much plot into a television format. I’m currently on book 11 out of 14 in the book series, so as long as I can finish the series before the show ends, I’d be satisfied.

To me, the story is pretty straightforward through book three, The Dragon Reborn, but once the two primary groups of main characters splinter into their own individual narratives, the storylines become more complicated, so many more characters are introduced, and the sub-plots-within-sub-plots become more convoluted.

Somehow, Brandon Sanderson was able to corral all of that narrative bloat into a three-book finale really well, so I’m hoping the showrunners for the TV show take a few pages from his book on telling a sprawling story in a concise form, without losing the flavor.

The one other thing I’d like to see with this show is a serialized release. Rather than dropping X episodes on their platform at once, I’d like to see Amazon release the show one episode at a time, similar to what Disney+ has done with its Star Wars and Marvel shows. The Wheel of Time deserves to be “event TV”, and releasing it per episode will help make each new installment feel like an event.

Two of my cousins-in-law are also eager to watch the show, so I’m hoping we can all experience it together — at least virtually.

Okay, now I’m getting a little hyped. Let’s check back after the first couple episodes, shall we?

Steve D

September Write Day: Stretch Goals

August was pretty chill, despite the blazing heat for most of the month. I was on paternity leave for three weeks, having only returned to work on Monday, meaning I was off for almost the entire month. It was great to really disconnect from work and just spend time at home.

The infant is doing well. He’s grown more than two pounds in his first few weeks, and the toddler is adjusting to his new baby brother well… so far.

I’m happy with the progress I made on both writing and reading, and we (meaning I, since my wife has been recovering from childbirth) managed to get a lot done around the house.

Let’s get to it!

Last Month’s Goals

  1. Actually enjoy paternity leave.
  2. Write 8,000 words.
  3. Read 3 books.

So how did I do?

Enjoy paternity leave?

I did! There was little sleep to be had, but it was great being home with the family all day. The toddler is really sweet with his baby brother, saying hi and goodbye to him and even kissing him on the forehead at bedtime.

We do not expect that to last. As soon as the baby is crawling around and grabbing at all the toddler’s toys, it will be a different story. For now, though, it’s lovely.

It has been a long time since I’ve been able to completely disconnect from work for such a long stretch. I have the type of job where even a week-long vacation can be interrupted by an “urgent” meeting that I call into from the basement of a beach rental wearing only a bathing suit.

So being required by law to not respond to any work messages, turning off email and chat notifications on my phone, and not being called with “emergency” questions worked wonders for my mental health. My supervisor also did a great job protecting me from any such nonsense while I was out.

Write 8,000 words?

Yes! I beat my goal! I wrote 8,409 words in August, and I had actually been somewhat hoping for even more.

I got off to a good start and was never out of reach of my goal. There were still a few too many gaps between writing days for my liking, but I’m just picky like that. I wrote 18 of 31 days, and I had a good spread of volume, ranging from 44 words to 900+ with a good mix in between. That means that even when I struggled to write much, I was able to rebound pretty quickly.

The one downside to being able to focus on writing so much without work is that I now wish more than ever that I could write full-time. I’m not financially prepared for such an endeavor, but it will definitely linger in the back of my mind. Even if I can retire a few years “early” to focus on writing, that would be awesome.

Mini Update on Uprooted, The Herb Witch Tales #1

My draft for this story now sits at just over 40,000 words, and I anticipate another 3-4k to finish the story. I ended up writing a large portion of this draft from scratch, scrapping entire chapters from my previous draft because of changes I decided to make to the plot.

I definitely want to finish this draft quickly, but then I want to reread and revise it a couple times to ensure I have the main plot points and details worked out. That will be the goal for September before I begin the second draft of New Earth, The Herb Witch Tales #2.

That’s the title I’m probably going with, by the way.

Read 3 books?

Not quite. I read two books in August, both of which I published reviews for: one a historical fiction set in Roman Dacia, and the other being Jurassic Park.

I’m about 80% done with another story on Audible and will definitely finish it in the next few days. I didn’t read much in print copies, but with a week-long beach vacation coming up, I plan to remedy that.

Goals for September

  1. Finish current draft of Uprooted and write 5,000 words. I don’t know exactly how much I’ll need to write to complete THW1, but 5k should get me there. If I finish the draft having only written 3.5k words, I’ll be satisfied. I’m also not planning on writing much more than that because we have a busy month, including the aforementioned beach vacation, where I will be staring at the ocean instead of a computer screen.
  2. Read through Uprooted. This will be a self-editing phase for this story. I already have some notes I want to make, but this will help me see the entire story together as one piece, rather than the little sections I’ve been writing for months. I will likely print out my manuscript so I can read and mark with red pen while on vacation.
  3. Read 4 books. With one book nearly completed, this shouldn’t be too hard. The bigger difficulty may be in deciding which books to read. I might be ready to jump back into The Wheel of Time.

Steve D

August Write Day: Turning the Corner

July was a solid month, writing and otherwise. I had a lofty goal, but I also had a plan to meet it. That plan went… alright. There were some bumps in the writing road, but I met my goal for the second month in a row!

And I made some crucial progress on my story, both in the actual writing and in figuring out where it’s headed as I plunge into the third act.

Let’s get to the goals already!

Last Month’s Goals

  1. Write 10,000 words.
  2. Read 3 books.
  3. Enjoy parental leave.

Write 10,000 words?!

YES! I wrote 10,054 words in July, in fact. How did I do it, you ask?! With a pretty hefty push in the final week of the month.

The middle two weeks or so did not go well for me, writing-wise. I fell behind and struggled to keep up, and then to catch up. Our toddler hit a new phase in July where he’d get home from daycare with my wife and pretty quickly throw an ear-shattering tantrum over basically nothing. It’s clear that these tantrums were (and are) because he’s hungry, but somehow the toddler will not listen to reason and sit down to eat a single bite of food. Weird, right? Who knew that toddlers were completely irrational gremlins.

So, I’d hear the tantrum start as I was finishing up work upstairs, and instead of staying upstairs to write as has become my routine, I more often went down to morally support my wife and emotionally support our meltdown-having son. That’s honestly the reason I didn’t get much writing done for the middle part of the month.

HOWEVER…

I still hit my goal.

There’s my progress chart from NaNoWriMo. You can see I started to fall behind almost immediately, but the wheels really came off around the 12th. I just could not sit down to write each day, and even when I could, it was for a pittance of words at a time.

But, I decided to knuckle down at the end of the month and try to close out strong. Over the final five days I wrote 6,000 words. That final spike on July 31 took three writing sessions, one around 12-1am, one around midday, and one that evening.

The other great piece of this is that, even with all the writing struggles, I still wrote 17 of 31 days. That persistence throughout the month was key to me striving for that goal at the end.

Read 3 books?

Nope. I think I technically finished Return of the King on July 1, but my reading was pretty lacking. Part of that was due to my focus on writing, but I also didn’t have any books pulling me in. I had started reading a work about the importance of nature in children’s lives, a fascinating read, but not the type to really call out to me. I’ll finish that in due time.

I started listening to The Fort, the first in another series by Adrian Goldsworthy, the same author who wrote The Windolanda Saga, following the same main character. I’m nearly finished that on Audible, but that’s about it.

Enjoy paternity leave?

No, because the stubborn kid hasn’t come yet! My wife is nearing 42 weeks, and our midwife already told that if we got to this point, our options were either to induce labor or have a c-section. We’re headed to the hospital Wednesday morning (I’m writing this Tuesday night) for the planned delivery.

Unlike our first, who literally kicked his way out of the womb almost a month early, this one has no interest in facing this capitalist dystopian hell-scape wonderful world. So my paternity leave starts next week!

Goals for August

  1. Actually enjoy paternity leave. My three-week leave officially starts next Monday, and I’m really looking forward to getting to focus on time at home with the family. The toddler will stay in daycare so as not to disrupt his schedule, but I’m excited to see him interact with his new sibling.
  2. Write 8,000 words. I feel really good about this one, considering I wrote 10k in July even with some hiccups. I have no idea how this will go with an infant and, oh yeah, the toddler, but I’ve gotten a head start.
  3. Read 3 books. I don’t like how little I read in July, but that’s the trade-off sometimes. Hopefully I’ll be able to find the time during my leave.

Steve D