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The Star-Gazer

star gazer
I want to tell you something wonderful that happened to me last week. When I was a boy of no more than twelve, my mother, knowing how I loved to spend every free moment of the Long Island winter evenings on top of our flat-roofed garage staring up at the heavens with my Edmund Scientific telescope, gave me a gift. This was in the days when the night sky sixteen miles from Manhattan was still dark enough to permit a few stars to take a bow when the moon wasn't hogging the stage.

Mom had me bundled up so thoroughly I could barely move to adjust the instrument, let alone climb the backyard stairs that led to the roof—I looked like a golem with a baseball bat. I remember, too, that my coat had these flat, metal snaps that locked together in what I imagined might be similar technology to that used by Dr. Frankenstein to secure his creation to the laboratory table. My cap had those ears that pulled down from the inside in what was the height of young men's haberdashery chic for 1961. I was enough of a nerd to incorporate the coat into my daily flights of science fiction fantasy as space cadet uniform, radiation shield or upper body strength super-enhancer, but even I knew that hat had "dork" written all over it.

I don't remember how she found it, but one day when I got home from school and tossed my dinosaur repulsion barrier (coat) on my bed, its large, circular communicator (yellow bus pass) glowing brightly, I realized I had thrown it on top of something she had left on the bedspread for me.

It was a book, but unlike previous works that opened the world of science and discovery to me, like Paul de Kruif's
Microbe Hunters and All About Dinosaurs by Roy Chapman Andrews, this one looked like an airplane
chock for a Douglas DC-3 (I've included a picture for you young 'uns).

This cinder block, written in 1939 by Hungarian Zsolt de Harsanyi, translated into English by Paul Tabor, was a biography of Galileo Galilei called
The Star-Gazer, and although it was twice as thick as any book I had read up until then, I consumed its pages as if they were made of Hershey bars.

genetic prophecy
The Italian Renaissance astronomer became my hero, and this book helped propel me into a lifelong love of reading.

Now, fast forward 50-odd years or so to a strange package arriving in the mail last week. Another book, the one pictured to the right, in fact. One of the two authors was Dr. Zsolt Harsanyi, the
grandson of the man who penned The Star-Gazer. Dr. Harsanyi directed the first assessment of biotechnology for the U.S. Congress' Office of Technology Assessment and served as a consultant to the President's Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research.

And here he was, having found me through the miracle of the interweb, mailing me his own 1981 work on the ethics of bioengineering. Did I say 1981? I did. Dr. Harsanyi was one of the first to wrestle with the "can we/should we" questions of genetic engineering. I had posted a comment about his grandfather's work someplace like Goodreads, and Dr. Harsanyi had used (I imagine) his NSA contacts to find out where I lived. His kind note to me was written from the Budapest Marriott!

I hate to get sappy (no I don't, not really), but I imagine Galileo would find it as astonishing and wondrous as I that two strangers could reach across the planet and find each other in this marvelous way. I wish my mother was still around so I could tell her this story. She'd flip.

Those Crazy Kids at Amazon

Amazon has a new Countdown Promotion for self-pubbed authors like moi. Sunday at 8:00AM, the price of A Mixture of Madness drops from $3.99 to 99 cents. Tuesday it goes up a buck to $1.99, Thursday to $2.99, and finally the following Sunday the price returns to $3.99, or what my critics call "highway robbery."

Since you have naturally bought it already, please tell your friends so they can get it (ridiculously) cheap starting this Sunday.



I have been remiss, waiting far too long to post an entry to this blog, but I hope I can be forgiven. And if not, I'll most certainly be ignored.

Since the publication of
A Mixture of Madness last December, I have had a little difficulty striking the flint under the tinder of book three in The Bow of Heaven trilogy. Not only have the vicissitudes of life intruded…. What kind of a word is that, anyway? Vicissitudes. For one thing, it's a word whose final "s" is almost always inextricably wrapped about the "o" in the phrase "of life." For another, it's a word whose meaning has eluded me for the past, oh, 40 years. I thought it meant a necessary intrusion, but it doesn't. It means ups and downs, an alteration or variation in the state of things. It's one of those words that shouldn't have a negative connotation, but does, like "frisbee" or "sherbet."

As I was saying, the
imposition of life, planning a trip to Italy, buying a house, preparing to leave my day job to write full-time, these stressors, while they have not quite given me a case of writer's "b-word," have stolen hours and attention from the keyboard. Once you stop writing on a daily basis, once in fact, that you've left your virtual pen and ink drying in the sun for weeks at a time, is it hard to get started again? A bit, yeah. Especially when you're trying to pull together characters and chronology from two previous novels and 900 pages of narrative.

"Oh stop your bellyaching and get on with it!" That was the imagined voice of George R. R. Martin, who has a tad more to remember than I as he soldiers on trying to stay ahead of HBO.

A nice review came in last week. I mention it because of the odd sensation of vertigo I experienced just before I clicked on the link sending me to the site where I could read it. I wish I was the kind of person to whom reviews were like rain on a duck's beak, or better still, that stalwart sort who, with backbone stiff and chin held high, shuns them altogether. I'm not. I read them and try to learn from them. I will even accept your castigation and admit that when a particularly inspiring review flies across the threshold, the bellows of encouragement begin pumping harder. (Aren't true artists supposed to be consumed by their calling, eating to write, not the reverse? Okay, that's not me either. Guess I'm an untrue artist.)

Last year I was honored with the silver award in historical fiction by Readers' Favorite for
The Other Alexander. A prerequisite for winning an award this year for A Mixture of Madness is a good review from the nice folks at RF. So when the email came in announcing the review's arrival, I found my toes curled over the edge of an egotistical precipice: I realized that anything short of a 5-star review would be bitterly disappointing. Yes, they did like it, it did capture five of the fiery buggers and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. But this mixture of madness (!) must stop. Should I now be crushed if AMOM doesn't do as well as TOA when the awards are handed out? For crying out loud, who gives a flying Fig Newton, as long as a few folks out there are buying the books and enjoying them?

Ahhhh. There's the rub. Awards help sell books. They get you noticed, and help do for self-published authors what the traditional publishing houses used to do for their stable of authors under contract. In the end, however, it is just too crazy-making to worry one way or the other. So my advice to aspiring authors which I must work to heed myself is this: submit your work for the reputable awards, hope your work is regarded with kindness, and keep your head down and your fingers limber. Kurt Vonnegut said it best: "Write to please just one person."

Comma again?

With thanks to Grammar Girl, I pass along this little graphic that distills to simplicity the ivory tower war that has been raging for decades over that little curlicue that allows us to pause between thoughts and lists, the comma. Specifically we are talking about whether or not it is correct to use what has become known as the Oxford Comma—the one in question under the heading below, after the word "defended." Does it belong, or should it be tossed on the slag heap of discarded and unloved punctuation?

Possibly due to a stint in an English grammar school in the '60's, or to a mother who feigned an English accent whenever she was nervous, I was taught to omit it. I didn't even know until recently there was any debate about it; anyone who tossed the extraneous mark into a sentence was not only wasting a keystroke but possibly inciting to riot in as many as three or four post-graduate composition aeries around the globe. Read on and you will see, as I did, that there are occasions where the little curly devil's presence is appropriate and appreciated.

(Apologies to Billy Tucker for the black eye I gave him in 5th grade. Billy, please pass along a current address and I will remit the $2.00, with interest.)



I Never Learned to Play the Trumpet

As a consequence, I am uncomfortable blowing my own horn. You critics, agents, publishers out there—you know who you are, please give a poor fella a break. Until you pick up some of the slack, I am left to do this pretty much on my own.

So here goes. February 1, the exclusive, prestigious guardians of all fictional writings historical, responsible for ruining innumerable toes of otherwise impeccable Sloane Street brogues as they are slammed unceremoniously out into a cold London drizzle, the
Historical Novel Society has seen sit fit to bestow (for the second time running) an Editors' Choice accolade on the second book in The Bow of Heaven series, A Mixture of Madness.

Last year, the Society was kind enough to single out the first book in the series,
The Other Alexander, with the same honor. Here is what they had to say:

“I am ancient now far beyond my fair share of years,” Alexandros, the slave Alexander, tells us at one point in Levkoff’s lavishly detailed and exuberantly intelligent second volume in his “Bow of Heaven” series about the smart, opinionated philosophy student who becomes the slave to the wealthiest man in Rome, Marcus Crassus. Readers need not read the first volume in order to enjoy this current one, and Roman history buffs will be able to guess the shape of the new book’s plot: Crassus, financier, doting father and husband, disgruntled triumvir, and would-be conqueror of the East. Levkoff has Alexander the slave at his master’s side through almost everything, without ever sentimentalizing his slave status (Crassus may like Alexander, but he’s also quick to threaten floggings when he’s in a bad mood) or filling the character with improbable braveries.

The book is filled with intrigue and action, especially in its final act when Crassus is bent on marching to the hostile kingdom of Parthia and almost certain doom. Along the way, Alexander himself grows and changes (“I love and am loved,” he tells us at one point, “I have friends, and a life that may justly be called my own"), and readers are drawn along by the author’s sharp ear for dialogue and his impeccable dramatic timing.


To KDP Select or not to KDP Select

In my first novel, The Other Alexander, it took me a short while to build up a head of steam (or so I've been told by several discriminating readers who my wife tells me I cannot remove from our Christmas card mailing list). That may be the case here within this post. If you've no time to waste, to read my evolving views on whether or not to join Amazon's KDP Select program, skip down to the œ.'s KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) Select program has been batted back and forth from every independent author and publisher from here to Singapore and back. Is it a sellout or a way for struggling artists to be seen and sold by the Jupiter of our solar system's publishing planets? If you sign one of your books up for KDP Select, you must agree not to publish that ebook with any other company: not Apple, Kobo, Smashwords or the six-year-old kids selling paperbacks with lemonade on the corner.

If you join, your books can be loaned out in the Kindle Lending Library, and each time that happens, you get about two bucks. You can also select five days during each 90-day sign-up with KDP to list your book for free, which will hopefully skyrocket your ratings and subsequently increase your at-money sales. Finally, you will be eligible for 70%, not 35% royalties for books sold in India.

uneasy spirits
Every struggling author already knows all this. I was spurred to write this entry when I read an article in this month's Association of Independent Authors, "7 Things Joining KDP Select Can and Can't Do for You," posted by M. Louisa Locke, a quite successful author of San Francisco historical mysteries. Here's a plug and a link:

Ms. Locke argues that if your book is on one of Amazon's bestseller lists or high up in one of the popular browsing categories, then members of Amazon Prime can borrow your book for free and you can cash in. In 2012, she earned over $8,000 in this way with her two books, Maids of Misfortune and Uneasy Spirits. Imagine how well she did with regular sales! Congratulations, Ms. Locke! The author also says that offering certain books for free (which Amazon will only let you do if you sign up for KDP Select) has brought her increased revenue through additional visibility.

œ If you are just getting started, as I am, KDP Select is a way of admitting that you need a leg up, and Amazon's program is a generous lift in the right direction. No one, by a factor of about 10, can come close to matching the marketing power of, so while I am building a following, I don't believe I am hurting the self-publishing industry as a whole by cutting my books off from Smashwords (whom I deeply respect) or from any other venue. I don't sell that many books to begin with (between 100 - 200 a month), so giving Amazon the "monopoly" of my books means losing only a couple of sales at most at those other virtual stores.

However, in my opinion, an author that has achieved a certain level of success, and each knows what that must mean monetarily, ought to leave KDP Select. In the long run, books should be available everywhere in every format. If the reader is the true leader of this new revolution in publishing, then she and he ought to be able to find
any book they want wherever they want in any format. If and when my writing feathers become stable enough to fly on my own (they won't, if I keep writing pathetic metaphors like this), I'll tumble from the warm, nurturing nest of Amazon's KDP Select program and find my way back into iPads, Nooks and Sonys. Splat.

A Fine Noise

After almost a month of waiting, the audiobook for TOA (The Other Alexander) is finally available here. has set the retail price at $19.95. Am I bovvered? That's less than 4 cents a minute. If you listen to it more than four times, it's practically free, innit? I don't know why I'm suddenly doing Catherine Tate. It must be her red hair. Anyway, I've placed a link to the Prolog at the end of this sentence so you can hear some of Andrew Randall's fine work. Podcast

So it's January, and that means New Year's resolutions, right? Nope. Sorry. Haven't got any. Wouldn't live up to them if I had. Although I have promised to complete the final book of the
The Bow of Heaven trilogy by the end of 2014. Yes, well, good luck with that. I rested about three days after completing AMOM (A Mixture of Madness) before striking out boldly, or should I say stumbling feebly into book three, whose title I have tentatively changed to The Archer and the Arrow.

I am having a rather difficult time of it, for two reasons. First off, I realized that AMOM was a better book than TOA, so now I have performance anxiety. How do I know it's better? A few reasons. I'm reading more widely, thanks to Stephany and her highbrow book club, and this of course means that I am hating more authors, whose talent, wisdom and brilliance with the mother tongue really frosts my cookies. Some of it must be rubbing off, which is not quite plagiarism; more like dusting the dandruff from the shoulders of those who came before me. People I trust are also telling me it's
Tallis Rack
better. I hope they are not equating "better" with "longer," because it's certainly longer. Practice may not make perfect, but I have to trust that there is still some talent left to hone, that there is yet some way to go before I reach that inevitably humbling stretch of road where I think I've got tread to spare but everyone else in the car knows those tires went flat ages ago.

Secondly, I left so many plot strings dangling at the end of book two it looks like I'm wearing a tallis. So now I not only have to write well, I have to be clever. I am not known for being clever. I am known for having a bad memory. I don't see how that is going to help. Pray for me. (Tallis optional.)