Passing on the Storytelling Love

Our four-year-old loves to read before bed. Reading has been baked into his bedtime routine since he was a baby. He takes a bath, brushes his teeth, gets his pajamas on, picks some books, and then we snuggle up to read.

I always let him pick the books. I tell him how many we have time for, and he makes the picks. He usually goes through phases of reading three same three to five stories ecru night for a couple weeks, until a new set is chosen.

I usually read to him. He loves hearing each story told in a certain cadence. He asks questions about the words he hears and the pictures he sees.

For a while, I tried to teach him basic reading as we went, sounding out the letters of simple words like “dog” as we read. He was not into it. He would just like to be read to, thank you very much.

He tells fantastic stories to himself as he plays, and he tries to tell us about his imaginary party house we have yet to see.

A couple months ago, I was worried that he would be slow to pick up reading on his own. After talking about it with my wife, I realized that was a premature idea.

For one, he’s still too young to really grasp reading on his own, without being a prodigy. And two, my mom read too me every night before bed until I was much older than he is now. Maybe 10? And even once I started reading too myself, I read a lot of the same books over and over.

The Redwall series, various Calvin and Hobbes collections, Animorphs, probably some Roald Dahl.

I didn’t pick up The Hobbit until I was 12, and I didn’t expand my reading list much beyond what was assigned to me in school until I was in college.

I was a late bloomer as a reader. And the four-year-old might be, too.

I’m cool with that. It may just give me more time to read with him. And the chance to share some of the novels I loved as a kid.

He loves stories. He loves hearing them told, and he loves telling them, even to himself. I’m just here to listen.

Steve D

Book Review: THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE delivers a fantastic modern fairytale

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is my second foray into Neil Gaiman’s fantastical storytelling, and I am in awe once again, as I was when I read Stardust.

Gaiman has an otherworldly knack for telling modern fairytales, both as a writer and as a narrator. I listened to the audiobook version of this novel, which Gaiman himself narrates.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a fascinating exploration of memory, friendship, and the underpinnings of existence itself.

Told from the perspective of a jaded adult remembering a fantastical experience he had as a young boy, this story is full of wonder, fear, and anxiety about the world of grown-ups and other things as can only be seen through the eyes of a child.

The story begins when the protagonist, unnamed, goes on a drive to get away from the drudgery of a funeral he is attending.

He soon finds himself driving to the lane where he grew, where his house no longer stands, and at the old farmhouse at the end of the lane. He doesn’t quite understand why, but he seems to be drawn to this place. He speaks with the old woman over a spot of tea, then goes to sit by the pond out back, which the little girl he used to know there called an ocean. Then, the memories flood back to him.

This framework story toys with the idea of memory, why we remember the things we do and may be better off not, or remember the things we don’t when those things could change our lives, our very existence.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a rich story that weaves these concepts deftly in and out of the narrative, so you only ever feel like you’re hearing a fairytale, and not a lecture on childhood memory and the forgotten perceptions of adulthood.

Gaiman masterfully narrates the audiobook as well. Having listened to two of his novels on audiobook, and never having read the print copies, it’s actually difficult for me to imagine not hearing these stories told in his deliberate, inquisitive, and soothing narrative style. Other than Jonathan Keeble’s raucous delivery of The Saxon Stories, I can’t think of a narrator who so intrinsically captures the tone of the story they’re reading, let alone an author capturing their own work. Gaiman brings a level of depth to his characters, dialog, and descriptions that I might be able to conjure myself if I read the print version.

Steve D

Double Book Review: SWORD SONG and THE BURNING LAND and the narrator effect

After not achieving much on the reading front last month, I’ve powered through two consecutive books of The Saxon Stories series by Bernard Cornwell, upon which the Netflix series The Last Kingdom is based. I’ve slowly picked through this series over the last year or so after watching the Netflix show and hearing about the books from my in-laws.

I really enjoyed this series so far, but I’ve learned that my enjoyment of these books, more so than others I’ve listened to on Audible, really hinges on the narrator.

Sword Song, book 4 of The Saxon Stories

As the fourth book in the series, Sword Song may be my favorite yet. Uhtred has come into his lordship with household guards, an estate, servants, and a family, and he displays stern but fair leadership. Brash and arrogant as ever, he still does not hesitate to argue with or insult the other lords or clergy of Alfred’s court.

Sword Song winds through a closer character story where Uhtred is pulled between his oath to Alfred and his family, and a larger sense of duty to Wessex. This culminates in a battle for London, where the Saxons try to wrest control of the city from the Danes.

This book is also narrated by Jonathan Keeble, who is the best narrator for this series to this point. His various British accents feel authentic, he has an excellent tonal range, and his natural litheness with dialog brings a wit and charm to Uhtred’s character that really overpowers his cocky attitude and makes him likeable as a protagonist.

With the return of some old friends and a little more narrative room to breathe, Sword Song is a great catch-up that turns into a harrowing adventure. I enjoyed this book so much that I jumped immediately into the next installment in the series.

The Burning Land, book 5 of The Saxon Stories

The Burning Land is a less glory-filled story of Uhtred’s saga. Five books in, it’s not surprising that Uhtred’s fortunes start to take a turn for the worse, and that even his decision-making seems clouded by his own pride. This is a story of hubris, where Uhtred’s own comes back to bite him in harsh and tragic ways.

Uhtred tries to free himself of his oath to King Alfred of Wessex, and in doing so, finds himself int he company of the Danes of Northumbria. He dreams of retaking his ancestral home of Bebbanburg, but that dream makes him desperate, rather than savvy.

There are few exhilarating battles in this story. Rather, this story is weighed down by a more somber tone and drama-filled scenes as much of Uhtred’s character flaws catch up with him, even in ways he cannot control.

Unfortunately, this tone is made drab by the narration. Whereas Jonathan Keeble brought a humor and wit to Uhtred’s character and dialog, the narrator for The Burning Land was completely humorless. His narration style sounded more like a self-serious Shakespeare reading, which really dragged the story down for me.

I will definitely continue reading this series. However, this experience is making me wonder whether I really love these stories, or I just really love Keeble’s narration. I think the stories are good, but Keeble’s voicing brings an energy, an authenticity, and a weight to these books that I’m not sure I would find so readily on the page.

Steve D

Review: TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT overcomes Middle Book Syndrome

Towers of Midnight is the thirteenth and penultimate book in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. I’ve been reading this series off and on for about six years. It took me some time to get through this book, primarily because I wanted to savor it, rather than rush through it to get to the end. That was a wise decision.

I consider this installment a “middle” book for two reasons.

  1. The Gathering Storm (book 12), Towers of Midnight (book 13), and A Memory of Light (book 14) are very clearly the final act in this sprawling series, narratively.
  2. They are also the final act in their production. Sanderson worked with the editor, Jordan’s widow, to split the final act into three books, and produced these three volumes.

This review contains spoilers for this book and those preceding it in The Wheel of Time.

So when I say that Towers of Midnight overcomes Middle Book Syndrome, I really mean that as a transitionary book to build to the climax that is surely waiting in A Memory of Light, this book succeeds.

Towers of Midnight is a compelling read jam-packed with fascinating plot lines centered around our main characters, especially Mat and Perrin, but also Elayne and Egwene. Other staple characters like Faile, Nynaeve, Lan, Galad and Gawyn also build towards a rich narrative.

It is very much a middle book in that these plot lines serve to close out long-running narrative threads, such as Perrin’s rise to leadership, Mat’s shifting focus back towards Rand and the Last Battle, Egwene’s cementing of her power as Amyrlin, and Elayne’s marshaling of power around her throne in Caemlyn.

These characters are shifting, slowly and inexorably, towards the Last Battle. In doing so, Towers of Midnight necessarily takes on the hefty task of transitioning the characters, all of the hundreds of characters, and the reader into Tarmon Gaidon.

That’s not to say that A Memory of Light opens with the Last Battle and is one massive compendium of fighting. (I’m a few pages in and can confirm this is not the case.) But after 13 novels of ever-increasing length and complexity, everyone is facing the same direction: towards The End.

Some sections of the book drag a bit — Perrin’s training in the wolf dream with Hopper and his inevitable face-off with Slayer took me a bit to get through, both because of the tension that had been built and because I wanted to get past it. Still, I understood in the moment that his realization and acceptance of his true self was necessary to Perrin’s facing of the Whitecloaks.

Overall, though, Sanderson churns through these plot lines and still manages to provide some surprises, some poignant moments, and some clean breaks with narrative threads that would no longer serve the end of this series.

After the numerous books I struggled to get through, or even to understand at points because they were so weighed down with characters about whom I could not bring myself to care, I’m honestly still a little awestruck at how neatly Towers of Midnight, and The Gathering Storm before it, have brought us to this point.

Like I said, I’ve already started A Memory of Light. I’m thrilled and simultaneously reluctant to get to the end of this series. That, I think, is testament enough to its storytelling power.

Steve D

August Write Day: Closing In

July was a fun month. We started it off with a two-week road trip seeing various parts of our families from northwest PA, to Michigan, and Wisconsin, which came with some great time spent on both shores of Lake Michigan. It was fantastic to just be with our boys for two whole weeks, and convinced us to do more family road trips in the future.

Coming back to work was not so great, of course. I feel like I’m still getting used to wok again in my third week back, but we have a relatively quiet month ahead. So that’s encouraging.

Last Month’s Goals

  1. Write 3,600 words.
  2. Read three books. Road trip audiobooks! I’m already thinking about which books I want to download to my phone for uninterrupted listening time while we’re on the road.
  3. Exercise at least three times each week. That’s kind of my bare minimum right now, to the point that I’m counting 15-minute runs as a full workout. I’m basically starting from scratch at this point.
  4. Disconnect. I feel like I really need to disconnect and just enjoy time with my family for an extended period, and I’m looking forward to it.

So how did I do?

Write 3,600 words?

YES! I wrote just over 4,000 words, in fact. Almost all of that came from two long writing sessions this past weekend, but it still counts! July was the first month this year that I actually hit my word count goal.

Part of the reason is that I’m closing in on the end of New Earth, The Herb Witch Tales #2. I always get excited to be nearing the end of a story, and I’m more motivated to finish it.

Read 3 books?

Nope! I listened to far fewer audiobooks on our road trip than I had anticipated. I’m nearly finished with Tower of Midnight, and not really reading much else at the moment.

Exercise 3 times per week?

I don’t think so. While on vacation, I was pretty good about being physically active most days. Aside from the loads of walking we did, I kayaked, swam, hiked, ran, and still did some stretching. Outdoor activities are my favorite way to exercise now. I just wish I had more time to do them.

Disconnect?

Yes. Two full weeks — the longest vacation I’ve taken in ten years — allowed me to just focus on being with my family. Traveling with a 3-yaer-old and an 11-month-old is still hectic, but we made sure to enjoy ourselves and appreciate our time with the boys as much as possible. We did manage to relax a little bit, too.

Goals for August

  1. Write 4,800 words. I think this should be enough for me to finish New Earth, so that’s my real goal this month.
  2. Take the next writing step. This will probably be to read through Uprooted, The Herb Witch Tales #1 and incorporate some edits/details that I know I need to flesh out more. But, this will depend on me finishing goal #1 above.
  3. Read 3 books. Same as usual. I already have the hard cover of A Memory of Light on my shelf waiting.
  4. Exercise 3 times per week. I have a basic routine formulating. I just need to stick to it.

Steve D

June Write Day: Oops

Holy crap it’s June. Apologies for my recent absence. A week of time off and the holiday weekend threw me off. I forgot to post a haiku on Sunday for the first time in like… three years. And then I forgot to schedule this post for this morning. So now I’m cramming.

June is off to a great start!

Last Month’s Goals

  1. Write 6,600 words.
  2. Read 3 books.
  3. Continue the exercise climb.

Write 6,600 words?

NOPE. I think I write about 2,000 words to start the month, and then did not write again. I was away from home for the week before Memorial Day without reliable internet access, so I knew I had limited writing time in May.

My adjusted goal for available writing time was supposed to account for this, but I need to tweak it to a lower weird count goal.

I’ll probably try for 400 words per available day, or some such.

Read three books?

Almost. I finished two books in May, and I’ve made good headway on three others. One of this might be a comic volume, but who’s keeping track?

Continue the exercise climb?

Another hiccup in May. My week away consisted of virtually no exercise. That was due to the renovation work I was helping a friend with on his Thousand Islands cabin. Turns out that tearing out drywall and old wood, carrying supplies, and installing new flooring is damn tiring. Thus, I didn’t really need the extra exercise.

I had a great week in cabin in the river with a few friends, though.

Goals for June

  1. Write 8,800 words. This is my adjusted goal, counting 400 words per day for twenty-two available writing days. June is (hopefully) a slow month for us.
  2. Read three books. As I said, I feel like I have enough of a head start to reach this.
  3. Continue the exercise climb. I’m back on track, I think, so I feel pretty good about this.
  4. Reorganize this site. You may have noticed some new headers on this site’s navigation. Or maybe not. Either way, I’m shifting my writing topics to themes rather than formats. I’m debating whether I want to re-tag my archive with these new themes, so there may be more changes to come.

Steve D

May Write Day: Restart

After two years of avoiding it, I tested positive for COVID this week. And I’m furious with the Supreme Court, liberal Democrats who continue to do as little as possible to improve the lives of Americans, and the Right for… actively bringing suffering to the lives of Americans for the last 20 years.

I also forgot to write this post last night and schedule it for this morning. So I’m going to keep this short.

Last Month’s Goals

  1. Write 9,600 words. Oddly specific and yet not random. (See above)
  2. Read 3 books. My new podcast notifications have settled the last few days, so I’ll obviously need some other form of storytelling to distract me. If only I could look at words on paper and hear them said by the voice in my head… I’ll think of something.
  3. Continue the exercise climb. I think success here will look like me running/working out or yoga-ing 4-5 times per week for the month. Plus remembering to meditate.

Write 9,600 words?

No. I think it was somewhere around 4,000, but I’m not going to check. Too many distractions, and not enough focus time. I have a trip coming up in May that will keep me away from writing for a week, so my word count goal will be much smaller.

Read 3 books?

Also no, but I made some progress on a couple that I’ve been enjoying.

Continue the exercise climb?

Yes, until I got sick this week. I started a core-strengthening yoga program in April that I was really enjoying, and it helped me figure out a daily routine to build onto.

I’ve generally not been a preset routine type of exerciser — I always created my own routines and evolved them as needed, so this is new territory for me. But without a gym membership and with limited equipment at home, I think this is the type of thing that can keep my motivated day to day.

I would just like to stop coughing so I can get back to it.

Goals for May

  1. Write 6,600 words. I promise these numbers are not arbitrary. I’m just calculating 600 words per day that I anticipate being available to write. This still feels like a lot, honestly, so I need to get off to a good start to close out this week.
  2. Read 3 books. I will actually have some downtime to do this during my week off (I hope).
  3. Continue the exercise climb. I’m optimistic that I’ll be feeling much better tomorrow and able to get back to my yoga program. It’s not like I’m doing anything this weekend until I test negative.

Steve D

April Write Day: Fitting into a Routine

April has arrived and so has spring in Maryland (I hope). March was a surprisingly long month.

I spent a grand total of five days at the office last month, which is more than twice as many days as I had spent there in 2021. It was a chance to meet some colleagues in person for the first time, and it was nice being in that environment again.

Then everyone went home, and I returned to working from home.

Goals-wise, March was, on paper, less than great. But I feel like my mindset on these things has started to shift for the better. I feel like I know where I’m at in my writing endeavors, what I really need to focus on, and that what comes down the road should not distract me.

More on that next.

Last Month’s Goals

  1. Write 10,000 words.
  2. Read 3 books.
  3. Continue the exercise climb.

Write 10,000 words?

No, and this shortcoming has led me to a slightly new way of thinking about my monthly writing goals.

I wrote 7,122 words in March. The obvious problem, as always, is that I had three gaps in my writing progress that exacerbated how far behind I fell until I effectively gave up for the month. This happens basically every month when I fall behind early, or when something in normal life takes me away from writing for a few days.

To this point, my writing goals have been rather un-scientific. But that’s changing. One thing I’ve learned over the past few months is that if I really sit and focus, I can easily write 600 words (or more) in 30 minutes or less.

I realize how unimpressive that looks when many writers do 2,000 words per hour, but this is the first time I’ve really time-boxed my writing sessions with a clear goal to achieve.

I also now know that weekend writing is increasingly difficult and unreliable, because we just tend to have things to do. My twice-weekly posts on this site do not count towards my writing goal, but they definitely take up precious writing time, so I also need to account for that.

So here’s my new calculus:

  • Total days in a month
  • minus number of Saturdays and Sundays
  • minus Tuesday blog writing
  • minus days for any other or prior non-writing commitments
  • x 600 words

For April, that gives me 9,600 words as a writing goal, which is right on target with my usual un-scientific goals. It also saves me the self-loathing of not finding the time to write on weekends or days when I have other things to do.

After two years of trying to shoehorn writing into my daily life and largely underachieving, it finally dawned on me that I need to ensure my writing routine actually fits around my daily life, too. So that’s what I’m doing.

Read three books?

I did not finish a single book in March. I have been reading, but my Audible listening has hit a dry spell, and I’m still taking my time with Towers of Midnight. I’m also really enjoying it at the moment and, strangely, have no desire to plow through it.

I definitely listened to a lot more podcasts than usual in March, primarily because that’s how I followed the early weeks of the Ukraine conflict.

I’m on the hunt for something different. Probably some non-dystopian sci fi or fantasy. The world is dystopian enough for me, at the moment. I’ll gladly take your recommendations though!

Continue the exercise climb?

I feel like I’m on the right path. I’ve finally decided on a pseudo-routine to guide me throughout the week. Basically, I want to alternate between longer (20-40-minute) yoga sessions and resistance training/running. My cardio is completely shot, so I’d like to start running 2-3 times per week, paired with push-ups and pull-ups for a more complete workout. If I feel physically tired or mentally drained, then I’ll do yoga.

I did not maintain a meditation routine, so I likely need a daily calendar reminder to… not forget.

The climb continues.

Goals for April

  1. Write 9,600 words. Oddly specific and yet not random. (See above)
  2. Read 3 books. My new podcast notifications have settled the last few days, so I’ll obviously need some other form of storytelling to distract me. If only I could look at words on paper and hear them said by the voice in my head… I’ll think of something.
  3. Continue the exercise climb. I think success here will look like me running/working out or yoga-ing 4-5 times per week for the month. Plus remembering to meditate.

Steve D

February Write Day: The Climb

January was a long month. I don’t know that is was particularly fast or slow, but I definitely don’t remember the first half. We spent those couple weeks mostly traveling and recovering from the holidays. The last two weeks have been much quieter, in a good way.

February is promising more on the quieter front, which I’m okay with, too.

Last Month’s Goals

  1. Write 9,000 words.
  2. Read 3 books.
  3. Start working out again.

Write 9,000 words?

No, but I got my days mixed up! For some reason I thought Monday, January 31 was actually February 1, so I took the day off from writing. How embarrassing.

I wrote 8,616 words in January, so if I had sat down Monday evening, I could have easily beaten my goal. Ugh. Oh well. I did manage to finish the month on a surge after not writing much for the first week or so, so that’s good news for my February writing goal.

Check out my progress on my NaNoWriMo goal tracker. You can see I only had two writing sessions in the first half of the month, but I still managed to nearly catch up with several sessions of 500+ words. I felt like I hit a rhythm, too, so it became easier to write larger chunks at a time. Maintaining that rhythm is the key.

Read three books?

I read two books in January, but one of them was a fairly dense historical audiobook about the Ancient Celts, so I’m okay with it.

I had started reading Towers of Midnight, book 13 of The Wheel of Time, but fell off for some reason. I am definitely still reading the book, but for whatever reason, I found it easier to do audiobooks in January.

Start working out again?

Kind of, but I don’t really feel like I have a routine yet. I have a plan in my head for more consistent exercise, but it includes cleaning out the garage and buying some boxing equipment. Really, I just need a free weekend. And to buy the equipment, of course.

I’m still into yoga, but I haven’t been doing it as much, or only in shorter sessions to stretch out. And simple resistance workouts are easy enough to fit into my days. Boxing was always a great workout for me, and I definitely need to find something aerobic again, so I’m on the lookout for a double-end bag.

Goals for February

  1. Write 11,000 words. I ended up with a solid writing pace towards the end of January. I just need to start February stronger and try to write more consistently.
  2. Read three books. I am reading The Last Kingdom… again… sort of. Turns out I unwittingly listened to the abridged version on Audible, which is less than half the length of the unabridged version. I’m not going to get into it, but I’m not happy that I spent money on a watered-down version of a story. I enjoyed the abridged version, but now I’m listening to the unabridged version. I’m not currently tracking this reading on Goodreads, but maybe I should. I don’t know. I do really like this book, though, so there’s that.
  3. Continue the slow climb to a decent exercise routine. That’s what this feels like now. I’ve been out of a decent routine for so long that I’m really starting over at this point. This month, I want to create a space where I can workout in my garage, and continue doing yoga and resistance exercises more consistently.

Steve D