Tasty Summer Reads Blog Hop

Something of a departure for me here – Jessica Knauss invited me to participate in the Tasty Summer Reads blog hop, so here I am thinking about blending food and historical fiction.

Here is the blog hop general blurb:

Welcome to the Tasty Summer Reads Blog Hop! Each participant invites a number of others to answer five questions about a recent or forthcoming release, and a recipe that fits with it. Links to the participants I have invited may be found in a while, just above the extract and recipe. Their contributions should be in place soon after this, so check out their blogs over the next few days.

Now, in one way the subject matter is pretty easy for me – it became something of a standing joke as family members were reading the later drafts of In a Milk and Honeyed Land that the inhabitants of Kephrath did a lot of eating.
Wine-making cellars at Gibeon, c. 750BC
But actually we know from archaeological excavations in Gibeon (which I call Giybon) that they did indeed produce a great deal of wine. Here are some of the wine-making cellars at Gibeon, which date from around c.750BC (picture hosted at the BiblePlaces.com web site)

This of course is about 500 years after Damariel and his generation, but it seems altogether likely to me that the wine industry flourished those few centuries earlier at the end of the Late Bronze Age.

A modern wine press in the region of the four towns
Wine-making continues there today – I took this picture a few years ago at a modern kibbutz pretty much on the site of biblical Kiriath Jearim (Jarrar’s Town or Woodlands of the stories). Here we have a modern mechanical wine press and the storage cisterns linked to it. There were also vine trellises, and flat areas for manual grape treading, but these were always full of people and I did not take a clean picture of these.

I use food in books a lot as a signal of social connection or disjunction. As an example, I have included an extract below from In a Milk and Honeyed Land. Here, and also in the (work-in-progress) Scenes from a Life, food is sometimes shared across social classes, and questions of who is allowed to eat what and when are used a signal of social division or unity.

Meanwhile, part of the deal with the blog hop is that I have to answer a few standard questions posed by the originator…

1) When writing are you a snacker? If so sweet or salty?
No, I tend to get lost in the process and forget about food for a while. Even when writing about food I don’t get tempted to wander downstairs and eat something. Right now I am overdue for lunch… When I do get to eat then my preference is for something constructed rather than just grabbed from a packet. I would be very much at home with the kind of eastern Mediterranean diet my protagonists enjoy!

2) Are you an outliner or someone who writes by the seat of their pants? And are they real pants or jammies?
Outline, definitely. Most definitely. The structure of writing is really important to me, both at the large scale of how the whole narrative is shaped and the details of each scene. If I do write a chunk all in a spontaneous rush I edit it a lot to make sure it actually does what I want it to.

3) When cooking, do you follow a recipe or do you wing it?
Same answer, really – I have to be pretty organised here so as things turn out well rather than badly. On the other hand, I get very impatient with long or elaborate recipes – what I am looking for is the right proportions of things to put together (ironically, the recipe I have added is very casual about such things).

4) What is next for you after this book?
Hm, well, just now my main target is finishing Scenes from a Life in 2013. I don’t yet have any specific thoughts for another novel, but there are some short stories that I would like to write. However, I completely expect at some stage to find another novel set in and around Kephrath in roughly the same era – I love exploring that setting and there is no shortage of material. I have alluded in a few places to a migration down from the north which Damariel’s ancestors carried out (there is a small amount of vague and inconclusive archeological evidence to support such an idea) and it might be good to look into that some more. I have a feeling that is short-story length rather than novel-length, though. More likely for a novel would be to move a few years ahead again. In terms of the Hebrew Bible, we move increasingly into the Judges era, which was a very turbulent and fascinating time, not at all like the relatively placid times before.

5) Last question…on a level of one being slightly naughty and ten being whoo hoo steamy, how would you rate your book?
Well, like other bloggers in this hop I find that a little hard to answer. Definitely not at the “whoo hoo steamy” end of the spectrum, but I wouldn’t use the word “naughty” either. My characters are very serious about love and sex, and quite involved with it, but as a normal and perfectly acceptable dimension of relationship. Their intimacies do (occasionally) find their way onto the pages, but anyone on a search for erotica would probably be disappointed! Canaanite religion was more overtly sexualised than perhaps the average European is accustomed to, but I have deliberately avoided the rather dull, and in my view bigoted, trope of portraying Canaanites as engaging in brutal and depraved sex and sacrifice at every opportunity. In In a Milk and Honeyed Land, sex can be delightful, abusive or just everyday, but it is not institutionally depraved.

I have invited the following people to participate in the blog hop, though time and holiday constraints mean that their contributions may well be a little delayed. If you find that they have not yet sorted out a post, please be patient and revisit in a while.

===== An extract from In a Milk and Honeyed Land ======

Damariel, a village priest, has just met Nepheret, who at the time is a slave in Gedjet (modern Gaza). Her master has ordered her to provide food and entertainment for him, and she has just finished her first song. Damariel is uncomfortable at the one-sided nature of the relationship, as his village culture is unused to slaves.

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“Nepheret, look, there’s far too much food just for me. Here’s a thought. When you sing, I will eat and drink something, and when I sing, you eat and drink.”
She thought about it for a moment, and looked again, hesitantly, at the door before nodding. “But I must sing again first, then you.”
Damariel nodded, and bowed with his hands held together as he might after agreeing a transaction with a trader in his own town, before lifting the cloth away from over the food. The first thing that caught his eye were some figs, each wrapped in a thin strip of some meat and stuffed with cheese. He put two onto a plate, picked up his beer, and ate and drank as she sang another song, this time without using any of the instruments. When she stopped he got up and went to stand where she had been. She moved to stand behind the table, but did not touch anything on it. He sighed, put one of the fig parcels on another plate and pushed it and the second beer towards her.
“How can I sing if you won’t sit down?”
She perched slightly awkwardly on the stool, and picked up the food.
“This is a song we sing when the olive harvest is in, when the first wine is just ready, and before we start digging the ground for the vegetables, the beans and so on.”
She listened acutely, the fingers on her left hand tapping against the table with the cadence of his voice as he recited the lines. When he stopped he came to the table and picked up his beaker of beer. They both drank. He noticed that she was still looking thoughtful and, more surprisingly, was still sitting.
“Sir, look, you make your songs differently.” He looked quizzically at her. “I don’t mean the words, of course yours are Kinahny, mine are Mitsriy. But that is not what I mean. But when you have two lines together, they are the same length.” She held her hands a short distance apart, fingers pointing up, palms parallel with each other. “No difference. But listen.”
She repeated two lines of the poem to Tefnut and spread her hands open so the fingers were further apart than her wrists. “You see, sir, they are long then short, not equal.”
He put the beaker down, intrigued.
“But why? Why not the same.”
“Oh, sir, but the lines are a heartbeat, there is a long one and a short one that join to make us live. Or they are the red hills either side of the black land, one higher and one lower, that look at each other across the great River. Or they are the two parts of the land, one long and one broad, that join at Men-Nefer. Or they are a man and a woman, they are a different shape and join together in union. Why ever make them the same?”
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Why indeed? In a Milk and Honeyed Land does not delve too far into the great adventure of ancient poetry, but differences in music and song can separate cultures or bring them together, just as food can.

The recipe:
Find some fresh figs, one per person unless you are very hungry. Here in the UK they are usually called green figs to distinguish them from the dried variety which will not work so well. Stand in some water, bring to the boil and simmer for a short time to soften the middles. Let them cool.
Meanwhile, pick the cold meat of your choice – something that is thin and wraps well is ideal, but this still gives lots of choice. Get a small tub of soft cheese. Cut off the top of the fig, scoop out the middle (carefully – the skins are not that strong) and squadge it together with the cheese. Add some herbs of your choice. Put the mixture back in the fig cases – you’ll almost certainly have some mixture left over to serve alongside. Wrap a strip of the meat around each fig, placing them in turn in a baking tray so that the ends of the meat strips are held in place. Bake in a moderate over until they are hot – they don’t really need cooking as such, this stage is just to get the flavours mixed. Eat while hot as a starter, snack or as part of a mezze dish.
(Family debts happily acknowledged for the original recipe)

A final picture, with an Egyptian theme – here is a wine-making scene from the tomb of Nakht, c. 1400BC (picture hosted on Osiris.net):
Egyptian wine-making from the tomb of Nakht, c. 1400BC

Here is the list of people who have participated to date, so far as I am aware:

Slaves In Egypt? – a contribution

This post was inspired by reading a fascinating and provocative blog article by Brian Rush (http://brianrushwriter.wordpress.com/2013/07/12/slaves-in-egypt/).
Israelites leaving Egypt - credited to Wikipedia by BrianI would recommend this article to others and do not disagree with some of the positions Brian is presenting. In particular (perhaps to reassure him and others) I completely agree with him that sacred traditions in general, and the Hebrew Bible in particular, contain mythic and spiritual elements and are best not absorbed simplistically or with a naive literalism. But… I think Brian significantly over-stated some issues of historical evidence, and as a result was rather too dismissive of the possibility of a historical root event to the Exodus tradition. I did put this into a response to the blog itself, but I suspect its excessive length tripped some kind of cut-off! The comment never made it to the blog.

Basically, I am suggesting that there are good reasons for supposing a historical basis for the narrative (and also that elements of that basis go back to the 2nd millennium BCE, but that is too long a subject for just now). To avoid getting ridiculously long I want to pick out a few of his statements and suggest that he was being a little too dogmatic about them. Essentially, I am arguing for a moderate position, rather than a dogmatic one in any direction. Each bullet point is taken directly from Brian’s article.

1. “an entire ethnic group, consisting of thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of individuals, were enslaved, men, women, and children, for over four centuries in a small (by modern standards) agricultural civilization on the Nile River”
Well, the claim is actually that a small family group went down to Egypt from Canaan – there is ample archaeological/textual evidence for such traffic – and were later enslaved as their numbers grew. The period of time is variously estimated in the Hebrew Bible from as little as 4 generations upwards, with “over four centuries” as the maximal estimate. There are two census figures at the exit given in Numbers, but these are open to several interpretations and should not be used in isolation for discarding the whole tradition.

2. “we should find in the Egyptian records plenty of evidence for the existence of an ethnic community of slaves … Egypt was not a major slave-owning nation until Alexandrian times. The great temples and monuments appear to have been built not by slaves but by free laborers. …something would have recorded regarding who owned all these slaves …In all the archaeological evidence unearthed to date, however, there is not even a mention of an ethnic group thousands of individuals strong kept in the country in bondage for centuries.”
Well, actually we do have such records for specific periods of time in the Middle and New Kingdoms (both 2nd mill BCE). There are lengthy lists of how many slaves were owned by whom and for what purpose, in many cases listing both their original and Egyptian names. As a single example, the vizier Rekhmire (c.1450BCE) depicted large numbers of foreign slaves (chiefly Semitic or Nubian) making bricks for a temple of Amun, watched by overseers. One overseer even complains that there is no straw to be had! Several NK pharaohs recorded hundreds or thousands of captives brought back – eg Amenhotep II claimed on one campaign to have returned with 89,600 captives… quite probably an inflated figure, but it gives some context.

3. “If the ancient Israelites had recreated and revived Hebrew to be their language, as the modern Israelis have done, there should be a tremendous linguistic influence from Egyptian on ancient Hebrew”
Ancient Hebrew was for some while almost indistinguishable from Canaanite and Phoenician, and there are a fair number of loan words from Egyptian – arguable though this could be a simple consequence of proximity. I personally find more compelling the fact that some of the literary forms of the oldest strata of the Hebrew Bible reflect Egyptian forms much more closely than Levantine or Mesopotamian. The literary forms do show “tremendous influence from Egyptian” on the oldest layers of text in the Hebrew Bible (I wrote a whole PhD on this topic! – see http://www.amazon.co.uk/Triumphal-accounts-Hebrew-Egyptian-ebook/dp/B009UETQD4/).

4. “Ancient Hebrew is linguistically related to other Semitic languages of the time, especially those of Canaan, Akkad, Babylon, and Phoenicia. It is not related in any significant way to Egyptian. As a written language, ancient Hebrew used an alphabet, while ancient Egyptian used ideograms and pictograms initially and evolved this system into a syllabary over time”
Actually there is a growing recognition that the proto-Canaanite alphabet originally derived from Egyptian signs (see for example Hamilton, The Origin of the West Semitic Alphabet). From earliest days the Egyptian sign list contained single-consonant signs which could have been (and in some cases were) used as an alphabet, but Egypt persistently rejected this possibility, preferring (I think) the greater metaphoric possibilities of the full sign list. Now I do agree that ancient Hebrew is more closely related to some of the languages you list, though actually the link to Akkadian is more tenuous. Ancient Egyptian is reckoned to be an Afro-Asiatic language, hence a cousin if you like. But purely in terms of signs the Phoenician alphabet, and so ultimately the English alphabet I am using here, was most likely derived from Egyptian signs.

5. “The political and religious traditions and institutions of ancient Israel were radically different from those of Egypt as well.”
I have already vastly exceeded a reasonable length of reply, but oddly enough I would argue the opposite, that both Judaism and Christianity owe a considerable, and often unacknowledged, debt to Egyptian religion. Yes, the pharaoh was perceived as related to the divine – and it is a fascinating study to see how equivalent phrases are used in the early Hebrew Bible about the god Yahweh, and in Egyptian writing about the pharaoh. But outside of the Amarna period, there was a general concept of personal access of ordinary to the gods without the need of an intermediary – a theme which is very prominent in both Judaism and Christianity. Ironically, Akhenaten’s religious reforms, whilst on a simplistic level looking like monotheism, actually tried to tie the people into a rigid form of worship in which deity was inaccessible except via the ruler.

Now, as I mentioned, I am not arguing that each and every word in the Exodus narrative should be taken at face value. The original text, and the sundry textual changes that happened over the centuries since then, were intended to serve many purposes other than a naive record of some cool events. But contra Brian, I think we do have grounds for suspecting a real, 2nd millennium root event which one might say seeded the tradition in the first place.


Triumphal Accuonts in Hebrew and Egyptian

Back on the ePub trail…

This is something of a perennial topic for me, but I keep discovering new wrinkles in the ePub drama. This time it was the realisation that some vendors will accept ePub files with minor errors and some will not. In fact most will not, even if the errors are minor. So having got all excited a week or two ago and talked about how Triumphal Accounts in Hebrew and Egyptian was going live… well, it only went live at a limited number of places. I finally tracked the problem down to some errors in the ePub source files which had evaded my notice… but not the detailed scrutiny of the extremely useful epubcheck tool supplied by Google. So… problem fixed, uploads in order, and everyone seems to have accepted the file this time around. Though of course acceptance and distribution takes time so at this point only LeanPub and Smashwords have the thesis live and on sale. Google and iTunes will follow shortly…

I also had a great review of The Man in the Cistern on the Breakfast with Pandora blog – well worth a read.

Lots of other activities in the offing so watch this space next week…

Senet, ‘Scenes from a Life’, and mobile app programming

Well, all three of these have been quite prominent this week. Senet is an ancient Egyptian board game, considered by many people to be an ancestor of backgammon. Available evidence is for the most part from tomb drawings and artefacts, with a small amount of textual material as well. It is not clear how far through the various levels of ancient Egyptian society enthusiasm for the game went – the tomb evidence by its very nature preferentially informs us about elite activities and interests, and we simply do not have information either way about other strata of the culture. Senet was used, apparently, not just directly as a game, but also as a religious or spiritual symbol of the passage through this life and the next. You could liken this very loosely to today’s playing cards, which similarly straddle the long gulf between between gaming and divination in different people’s hands.

Scenes from a Life makes use of Senet quite extensively, and I have assumed that it was played very widely by all kinds of people. Sometimes in the book it is just a game, but much more frequently it features on a metaphorical level. So the journeys that take place through the book might be interpreted by the characters as like movements in the game, with all of the anticipation and anxiety that this brings about. Or there might be an analogy drawn between someone’s behaviour and a game play strategy. If, as I suspect might have been the case, Senet was something of a national game back in New Kingdom Egypt then this is inevitable. Think how sports fans tend to lace their conversation and world-view with ideas and set-piece moves drawn from their favourite sport, whether football, chess, baseball, table-tennis or whatever.

Senet app icon

So that brings us through to mobile apps. Some long-term followers of this blog will know that I have a Senet game available on the various app stores (pick your favourite store and search for DataScenes Development, or just directly for Senet). But over the last few weeks I have been working on a new version. Alongside the paid-for version there will be a free (well, advert-supported) one which has a number of geeky techie advantages.

  • By using a different underlying technology I am able to release it for a lot of phones and tablets of quite modest specification (lots more than was constrained by the previous tech choice).
  • I have integrated the app with the web so there is a sort-of leaderboard feature for those who fancy themselves as modern-day Senet champs.
  • I have taken the opportunity to rework a lot of code that had got more and more like tangled spaghetti. Anyone in the IT trade will recognise this as refactoring, and with my QA hat on I am completely aware just how many bugs get introduced by enthusiastic developers doing just this… but my code will be different…

Senet splash screen But I have also been finding some of the down-sides with the new development tool (it’s the Corona SDK for the true IT geeks). This is based on a graphics engine called OpenGL – which is magnificent for things like displaying images and moving them round the screen, but really quite poor at laying out simple text in – say – some help pages. Ironically I think I have spent longer getting the in-app help to work properly than the mechanics of the game itself.

Now, the characters of Scenes from a Life did not have smart-phones with them on their journeys. But they did enjoy the game of Senet – and you can enjoy it along with them! Realistically Senet the free game will be released quite some time before Scenes from a Life hits the bookshelves, so it can act as a sort of preview…

Triumphal Accounts – epub version

At long last I have been able to complete preparation of the epub version of my PhD thesis ‘Triumphal Accounts in Hebrew and Egyptian’. The kindle version has been available for some while now on Amazon UK and Amazon.com, but this opens up more distribution opportunities. So right now it is available at LeanPub – https://leanpub.com/triumphalaccounts – and it is queued up for approval at Google Books and iTunes. As usual, it will take a few days for it to appear at these places, and anywhere else I can find.

Cover - Triumphal Accounts in Hebrew and Egyptian

Another excitement of the week is the start of a group of readers/writers/reviewers who intend working through a book at a time. Some explanation is at http://www.kephrath.com/BookReviewGroup.aspx, and I wil fill in more details as they come along. The first book is Marian Allen’s fantasy novel The Fall of Onagros, and our target is to read it, review it and interview Marian during August. Should be fun.

New maps!

I thought it was about time I got on with maps for Scenes from a Life, so here are a couple…

Full regional map – Waset to Kephrath

Full regional map - Waset to Kephrath

The area around Waset

The area around Waset

Of course these are provisional at this stage, so expect some changes here and there, but it’s a start. Waset is nowadays known as Luxor, so you can have some fun matching places onto Google maps or something similar!

Also a short review of a short book – Robyn Hode (I) by David Pilling. David is slowly working through a series of short, fairly self-contained episodes about Robyn. Robyn is actually called Robert Hode in the books, but I suppose nobody would get the reference if he used that name on the cover! David has done a good deal of background research into the historical figure behind the Robin Hood tales, and this series is his attempt to map out a possible history. I enjoyed it, but found the shortness a bit frustrating so gave it four stars. The review is on Amazon.co.uk.

Some new places to download Kephrath short stories

I have been steadily working away for the last few months – since grappling with epub format – on extending the range of places where my short stories can be found. For reference, we have:

LeanPub
The Man in the Cisternhttps://leanpub.com/TheManInTheCistern
The Lady of the Lionshttps://leanpub.com/TheLadyOfTheLions

Google Books
The Man in the Cisternhttp://books.google.co.uk/books?id=btI7ztEAutIC
The Lady of the Lionshttp://books.google.co.uk/books?id=urtDZFceBYQC

iTunes
The Man in the Cisternhttps://itunes.apple.com/gb/book/the-man-in-the-cistern/id648034238
The Lady of the Lionshttps://itunes.apple.com/us/book/the-lady-of-the-lions/id664565774 (in the process of distribution to iStores – should be available shortly)

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The full range of purchase links can be found at http://www.kephrath.com/WhereToBuy.aspx

All pretty exciting stuff, and as availability increases I’ll be advertising it here…

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Also, The Man in the Cistern just had a great review, to be found at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/622005023

A bonus post

The bonus is a link to a post I guest-wrote for Erin Eymard’s Bookworms Fancy blog. The brief was to explore the question “How did you become a lover of books and reading?” and several guest writers are going to be tackling that very same question. My contribution drifted over a number of factors, from the very first school that I have any recollection of (Miss Pears, near Romsey, Hampshire, England), the public library at Godalming (Surrey, where I spent my teenage years), maps integrated into books, and a few brief highlights of individual books which have had an impact on me. Read the whole article over at the Bookworms Fancy!

Bookworm's Fancy logo

Godalming library as it is nowadays

Launching an author web widget

Firstly, there are a number of birthday giveaway free tokens still available for In a Milk and Honeyed Land – but less than last week so if you would like one of these please contact me at books@kephrath.com. This is for the electronic version (epub or kindle mobi), sadly not for physical copies. I also had time to write a review of Britannia’s Wolf by Antoine Vanner, a piece of naval fiction set near the end of the 19th century.

But the main thing I wanted to talk about today was that, wearing one of my IT development hats, I have now finished work on a web (or blog) widget for authors. This screenshot shows the appearance, but for ‘live’ operation please look at the Matteh Publications site at http://mattehpublications.datascenesdev.com/AuthorWidgets.aspx or http://mattehpublications.datascenesdev.com/AuthorWidgetRegister.aspx.
Screenshot of author web widget

What does the Author Web Widget do? Well, you can have a single widget which combines information from a whole multitude of different sources. It can be placed on your web site or blog – so long as the blog supports JavaScript, which is typically in the sidebars or banners rather than the main area. You can give the code – just a few simple lines to copy and paste, which connect to the Matteh Publications site for all the hard stuff – to your friends and supporters who can embed it on their own site in order to promote you.

The widget will link to your web site, blog, main social media sites and email. It will also allow you to combine a whole list of different vendor links – Amazon, Goodreads, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble and so on. You may well have reviews of the book scattered here and there – maybe Goodreads, Shelfari, and a whole lot of separate blogs. Same for extracts that you have contributed to various locations over the months. Since this widget is independent of each of these separate sites, you can connect to all of them in one place.

All of the details can be edited from a single page on the Matteh Publications web site – colour, size, text and link entries, vendors and so on. This page becomes accessible to you after registration. The edit process is pretty much automated and should be easy to manage, but if you run into problems I am just at the other end of an email – matteh@datascenesdev.com. At the moment the widget only lists a single book, but you can always have more than one and I can walk you through the simple process of hosting multiple widgets on a single web page if you like. From your page on the Matteh Publications site you can also see how much use your widget has had – how many page views, how many times someone has clicked through to one or other site, and so on.
Screenshot of configuring the author web widget

How much does the widget cost? Well, the normal price would be £20 for a year’s subscription, to include unlimited edits and unlimited use on as many different sites or blogs as you wish. I am running an introductory offer of £10 for the first year for a limited time, probably a couple of months as the system is proved in action. The money transaction is handled by PayPal so your financial details wil be held securely at the PayPal site and not by me. All I need is the transaction ID to confirm payment.

If you’re interested in one of these web widgets for yourself, drop me an email at matteh@datascenesdev.com and we can talk about it.

More updates – and the birthday giveaway has not yet ended!

First and foremost, it was my very great pleasure to read a review this morning on Goodreads – an extract follows

Flowing, eloquent descriptions of the region, traditions, music, and writings of the people of those times immerse the reader. I felt as if I were there, standing at “the high place” with the world spread out before me, walking in an ancient olive grove, hearing the soothing notes of a lyre. I wanted to be there, to be part of the exhilarating festivals, to share in the people’s sorrows, to face their challenges with them. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough, yet I hated to see the book end.

Considering the depths of emotion explored, the lessons conveyed, and the story told, “In a Milk and Honeyed Land” is an astonishingly easy read. More than that, it’s utterly beautiful.

For the full review, check out Goodreads. As you can imagine, I was absolutely thrilled to find this! Meanwhile, here are some (modern) olive trees in the region of the four towns…

Olive grove in the region of the four towns

The birthday giveaway continues – some of the free download tokens have gone but others still remain, so if you want to receive a download token and instructions how to use it please contact me at books@kephrath.com soonish. Electronic copies only, I’m afraid, as the physical soft- or hard-back versions are not included in this.

So meanwhile… updates continue over at the Kephrath site. Some of them are just geeky things to bring the web technologies used up to date – the shiny new rotating news feed on the home page is one such, and the book review filter at http://www.kephrath.com/BookReviews.aspx is another. But as well as that I finally got the timeline page out at http://www.kephrath.com/Timeline.aspx. It’s fairly basic at the moment but from this point on I can enhance it as time permits.

Keep watching for more changes…

Writing, both historical and speculative