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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.


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."

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.



I was very pleased to receive a new review today from the reader below. I tried to find Kelly to thank him/her for taking the time to post such a thoughtful critique. If Kelly is actually reading this blog, in addition to advising you to run right out and buy a lottery ticket, I extend that gratitude to you now.

(Spoiler follows.)

Alexandros' loss of freedom is, of course, a central theme of
The Bow of Heaven series, and yes, for dramatic purposes, it is not granted in The Other Alexander. I am not trying to sacrifice accuracy for the sake of story line, but I am trying to tell a readable yarn above all. I was, in fact, flattered, that someone who clearly knows Roman history far better than I saw fit to give me such high marks.

4.0 out of 5 stars Engrossing, well researched and great characters, November 10, 2012

This review is from: The Other Alexander, Book I of The Bow of Heaven (Kindle Edition)
I thoroughly enjoyed The Other Alexander, and as a Roman historian, I can be hard to please. I've given the book four stars rather than five simply because I felt there were a couple of plot points where the author brushed aside the character of his protagonists that he'd been carefully building, in order to achieve a dramatic moment. This was disappointing to me, but other readers may not feel the same.

(Minor spoiler follows)

I also had to take issue that the main character, who displays loyalty and courage, moves into his thirties without manumission, even after he has saved the life of a citizen and his master. He is too valuable to be given his freedom, the writer tells the reader. This is convenient for the plot, but disappointed me given how careful the author has been in crafting other aspects of Roman society and explaining these to the reader within the narrative. Manumission was not only the end of captivity for the Roman slave, it was also the culmination of a process of social integration, a process whereby the slave who had already been partially incorporated into Roman society through the social institutions of household, family, and patron-client friendships became politically assimilated into the Roman state. (Patterson, 1982). Crassus' failure to at least discuss this possibility with Alexander was a major flaw in the novel to me.

"I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."

Here in its entirety is the review which will be published on the Foreword Clarion website in a couple of weeks.

Pasted Graphic

Four Stars (out of Five)

“A word of advice,” cautions Alexander, the narrator and hero of Andrew Levkoff’s
The Bow of
. “If you can possibly avoid it, do not get shot.” Such wry asides are plentiful in this tale
of a Greek student “harvested and swept up to feed Rome’s insatiable appetite” for the slaves
“upon which that lumbering beast’s survival depended.”

Levkoff has chosen to tell the story of Marcus Licinius Crassus—the richest man in
Rome during his day, the original benefactor and sponsor of Gaius Julius Caesar, and the
commander who oversaw the campaign to put down the revolt of Spartacus—through the eyes of
a slave. The novel focuses more on the trials and tribulations of those who serve a great house
than on the triumphs and tragedies of those who rule it. Whole chapters are devoted to romantic
and other interpersonal relationships among the staff, while Crassus’s greatest moments—the
Spartacus campaign, the Catiline Conspiracy—are skipped over and told as afterthoughts.

Despite this rather unusual and at times unsatisfactory tactic (at least to fans of Roman
historical fiction), Levkoff does manage to paint his readers a very believable—though perhaps
too sympathetic—portrait of a man who was once the most formidable power in the ancient
world. Levkoff does so while keeping the audience entertained with the soap opera bubbling
about in the kitchens, work rooms, and slave quarters of Crassus’s villa.

The slave Alexander is Crassus’s confidant and conscience and, at times and quite
literally, also his whipping boy. Levkoff does not let his readers forget that while Alexander
comes to lead a life of privilege and comfort due to his master’s generosity, the Greek remains
“but still a slave.” How Alexander is treated by the petulant and pompous Caesar, for example,
speaks volumes on the lives and character of both men.

Thoroughly researched, beautifully written, and cleverly staged,
The Bow of Heaven is a
unique and engaging look at Rome in the first century before the Common Era. It is also the first
in a series, the second of which is previewed in the final pages of the novel. Book Two will focus
on Crassus’s ill-fated attempt to conquer Parthia, a disastrous campaign that humbled Rome, cost
the great man his life, and thus removed the one block that kept Pompey Magnus and Julius
Caesar from tearing the republic apart. If Levkoff continues the excellent work he demonstrates
in Book One, Book Two is likely to be an even better read than the already superb
The Bow of
. - Mark G. McLaughlin

Somebody find the ground so I can put my feet on it!

I am humbled and extremely grateful to the Historical Novel Society, the venerated, prestigious British journal of historical fiction, for the following review, published in their February, 2012 edition. To see the entire page, click here.

Historical Novels Online


"Bow" reviewed

Thank you, Carole Rae, for this goodreads review: