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Strange & Norrell – Review

Jonathan Strange & Mr NorrellJonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of those books that I really didn’t want to end. Not just because of the plot, though that in itself is fascinating, but because of the world created in which the fascinating (very real) characters live and move and have their being.

In some ways it is like the The Gormenghast Novels in that a layer of mystical medievalism lies over an Enlightenment England (and this is a very English – as opposed to British – book). There are also comparisons to be made with Moonlight, Murder, and Machinery – the combination of magic and Romanticism. I’m not sure about the comparison to Jane Austen, though it is definitely of that time. The language is elegant, and understatedly witty (hence comparisons to Austen).

One of the most interesting twists to the book, as far as I am concerned, are the long footnotes, which posit a world that is well documented, and absolutely convincing. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, I’m sure, but for those who like a long, well-constructed adventure which combines history and imagination, it’s perfect. A book I wish I’d written.

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A step into the unknown

In a few days, my new book, Leo’s Luck, will be published. And in some ways, I am more nervous about this book than I have been about any of my others.

Why should that be so? I have to confess, I can’t even remember how many books I have out there now. A new book should be a routine event, and yet, in this case, it isn’t.

Leo is not autobiographical. Let me get that out of the way to start with. Yes, I have lived in Japan, and I know Japanese society reasonably well. Yes, I have played in rock bands (though not professionally) and I can tell you the difference between a Telecaster and a Stratocaster sound. And yes, I have actually been involved in parapsychology, and have experienced some things that I can’t explain.

But some of Leo is fictional. Leo is in many ways a rather nasty selfish piece of work. And though I may be selfish at times, I do at least try to put things right if I catch myself at it. I don’t hang around with gangsters, and I don’t embezzle money. Leo does.

But even so, people are going to identify Leo with me. He starts out by leaving his wife for his girlfriend. People will thereby assume things about my marriage. They shouldn’t – how many people reading Macbeth feel that Shakespeare was a regicide and mass murderer? It seems, though, that people do have these feelings about writers now – there are so many “confessional” books out there, and we writers are constantly being exhorted to write about what we know, that apart from the obvious fantasy fiction, a writer’s work is often taken as being autobiographical.

But my main reason for concern is that I am stepping way outside my comfort zone here. I haven’t lived in the UK for over quarter of a century. What is my description of the UK like? Accurate? Inaccurate? I am typically more at home in the late 19th century of Baker Street and the streets of Paris. More difficult to check whether I am accurate or not there. How real is my rock band? Even the sex scenes contain elements of fantasy – and that’s another cause for disquiet – writing sex scenes at all.

But at the same time, it’s been liberating – as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle discovered, Sherlock Holmes can be more of a burden than an asset at times. And though I do not share Sir Arthur’s dislike of Sherlock Holmes that developed later in his career, it’s been fun to get away from Baker Street, and hit the mean streets of Tokyo with the Killer Rabbits.

It’s a very different side to me and my writing, and I’m excited to see how it will be received, as well as being nervous.

I enjoyed writing it, anyway. I hope you enjoy reading it.

Leo’s Luck first chapter online


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Leo’s Luck, described as “deep fried sushi” by Jake Adelstein, is available for pre-order through Amazon and through Inknbeans Press.

The first chapter is now available online as a PDF. Here’s the link: Leo’s Luck Chapter 1.

Wikipedia. Fame? Or simply egotripping?

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I was rather taken aback the other day when a good friend of mine was surprised that I didn’t have my own Wikipedia page. I’m not that famous, really, but it seemed natural to him that someone with as many books out as I have should be a Wikipedia subject.

Is a Wikipedia entry something I want? Maybe. Something I really, really want and will lie on my back and kick my legs in the air and scream if I don’t get it? No, not at all.

Any views on this?

More on “Wikipedia. Fame? Or simply egotripping?” here…

Leo’s Luck

They say “write about what you know”. Well, I know Tokyo, I know something about rock ‘n’ roll bands and guitars, I know something about banks and money, and I know something about parapsychology. So… put them all together, and if you’re Leo, you may get lucky.

But there’s more in the story than what I’ve just mentioned. Do I have personal experience and knowledge of all these weird and nasty things? Well, you’ll just have to read the book and guess what sort of person I am.

Now available for pre-order from Amazons (release June 30) as Kindle, with paperback publication on the same date.

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Review: Extreme Music (Michael Vezzuto)

extreme-music-front-cover-600.jpgOne of the joys of being a writer is the fact that people sometimes give you books they have written (in exchange for which you give them books that you have written). Not every book you receive is one that you might have chosen when you look at it on the library or bookstore shelves, but you may often get a pleasant surprise.

I received just such a pleasant surprise with Michael Vezzuto’s Extreme Music. Probably I would have passed this by in a casual browse, but Vezzuto offered to send me a copy, after he and I had corresponded on Facebook regarding promotion strategies for self-published authors. And how glad I am that he did. I polished off the 300+ page book in a matter of hours.

Let’s start the review by giving five stars to it (I can’t do it on Amazon or on Goodreads, because it’s not listed there yet). But here it gets five stars. Here they are:

*****

It may be a self-published book, but it is professional in its overall appearance and layout and editing. Indeed, the layout is fascinating, since the author uses typography creatively and inventively to emphasise points of the plot. Anyone buying the e-book edition is almost certainly going to miss out on this part of the story.

And what a story! It reminds me of Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music in many ways – for example, how it explores the mind of the classical musician who is good, but not quite good enough to make it to the very top of the tree. There is definitely humour, and there is some tragedy involved. Told in the first person as the reminiscences of a violinist who comes into uncomfortably close contact with an enfant terrible of the avant-garde, whose works provoke, as the composer intends, extreme reactions in the audience (and some even more extreme reactions in the performers), the circumstantial details are convincing enough to make you believe in the truth of the story as an account of real events. There is self-doubt, there is hesitancy, there is a sense almost of second-rateness about the narrator’s attitude to his art, and yet we know that Raymond Maynard is brushing the hems of the skirts of greatness. He is a very real person, with a real person’s pride, and humility; sense of pique, and tolerance; sensuality, and prudishness.

A memorably-named cast of characters inhabits this musical New York, with Alberto Narcisi (the extreme composer) leading the pack. But there is some insightful musical criticism here, leading the reader to explore classical works in more detail. For example, Messiaen’s Quatuor pour le Fin du Temps forms a leitmotif throughout a larger part of the book. I started listening to it as I started this review, but soon found I had to turn it off. It needed my concentration, and Vezzuto/Maynard’s sleeve notes to help guide me through it. There is other music mentioned here for me to explore. If nothing else, the book is worth it for that reason alone.

If you are a publisher or an agent, get in touch with Vezzuto and get this book out to a wider audience. It deserves it.

If you are just a reader, and you have any interest at all in the arts, or in classical music, or in human beings – BUY THIS BOOK!

It seems to be available only through Blurb at present. Let’s hope that changes soon.

Review: Leaving Orbit

Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American SpaceflightLeaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight by Margaret Lazarus Dean
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this book, and at the end of it didn’t really know whether I enjoyed it or not. I found it to be a book not so much about spaceflight and the shuttle as about one author’s reactions to spaceflight and the shuttle. Unlike Tom Wolfe, who tucked himself neatly out of the way in The Right Stuff, Dean tells the story of the shuttle’s last days very much through her own eyes.

It’s interesting, but to my mind a little self-conscious (she is a teacher of creative writing at a university), and constantly harks back to other accounts of the space age (Norman Mailer, for example). Happily she doesn’t refer to herself in the third person, as Mailer did, but there is a definite feeling of the writer watching the protagonist (who happens also to be the writer). The “diary” style interspersed with history failed to work for me.

The present tense which is used in many places may be intended to draw a distinction between the then of the history of spaceflight and the now of her experience observing the shuttle, but I found it irritating. There is also a feminist thread running through the book, which I also found irritating, not because of its content, or its intent, but because of the way it was handled. The whole concept of women in spaceflight could have done with deeper more concentrated treatment, rather than being scattered throughout the book.

Having said all of which, the factual aspects of the book were interesting, and I learned a lot more about shuttle as a result of reading it. But this is not the heroic age of spaceflight. There are no John Glenns or Buzz Aldrins (though both make cameo appearances here), let alone Pete Conrads or Gordo Coopers. The shuttle program is much more of a bureaucratic exploration of space, and Dean’s comments on the politics of space are well worth the read.

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