Tuesday, 24 September 2019

The Heart Of The Ritz - Book Review

The Heart of the Ritz is an energetic and complex novel with a thoroughly entertaining and captivating story that cloaks an exploration into human morals, personal sacrifice and courage.

I recently read the Paris Seamstress, and while I enjoyed the read, I was a little disappointed when the story moved from Paris under the threat of occupation; the Heart of the Ritz was my remedy.

Polly is a sixteen-year-old orphan, sent to live with her famous Aunt Marjorie, a singer, well known in Europe. When Marjorie dies suddenly, Polly’s guardianship falls to Marjorie’s three best friends, Alexandrine, Zita and Lana Mae. Alexandrine is a minor aristocrat, Zita is a film star and Lana Mae a wealthy heiress, and all three live hedonistic, socialite lives of privilege – their home, the famous Ritz Hotel in Paris.

They’re interesting characters, fun to know in a sort of “The Real Housewives of Paris, in the thirties” kind of way, but as they are, rich, indulgent and somewhat narcissistic, you wouldn’t want to spend too long in their presence. Cue the war as it came creeping to the outskirts of Paris with the fascinating rumours of the approaching German armies, the propaganda and lies of the French government as they keep the truth of the threat hidden until the last moment and then the shock and stunned adjustments needed by the citizens, as one of the world’s most prized cities falls in days and becomes an occupied prize of war.

The German’s take over with ruthless efficiency and Polly, and her three larger-than-life guardians must find a way to survive under the occupation. Each must face harsh truths about themselves, the lives they’ve led and what it will take to be able to live with their choices when witnessing unspeakable crimes. It’s a question we all ask and will hopefully never be called to answer, but who dares to risk their safety for an ideal when forced to choose?

The Heart of the Ritz tackles these issues alongside a good helping of romance without ever being sentimental or relying on easy choices. Some of the affairs with occupying German’s are heartbreaking, and the death of the young, innocent J├╝rgen rests well alongside other tragic literary deaths such as Pvt. Roth from Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead.

Luke Devenish has written an extraordinarily well researched fiction, based on history, that is so rich in detail and fact that it feels like a window back through time.

Expect to laugh and cry, while being enthralled as these remarkable women change and grow to be so much more than they began. This story will stay with me for a long time, as it dealt with many of life’s big-ticket items in a subtle, thoughtful manner that is so relevant because of the times in which we now live.

My rating: 5 sidecars from the Ritz @ $1500 per drink!

Thursday, 22 August 2019

Dan Brown's - Origin

I keep reading Dan Brown because I have enjoyed his books in the past, certainly once before, and almost twice. Inferno had me rolling my eyes, while Origin is back to his religious explorations and is far more what I've come to expect, although there are moments when I found myself more frustrated than thrilled. 

To be fair, DB can tell a ripping yarn, but he employs so many delaying tactics, so many moments of narrative exposition that tell us exactly what someone is about to do, or worse, tells us what they're experiencing internally without bothering to paint the picture or show us their emotions through action. 

Origin hooks you in with the promises of an answer to life's biggest questions.

It's entertaining, although some of the convenient movement forward and out of stalemate within the plot stretch the imagination, but no worse than any other action thriller. I guess that's my biggest complaint here - am I reading this and seeing a movie because of those that have gone before, or is this written more to a screenplay's formula of short sharp scenes, where characters are able to move beyond emotional and physically exhausting moments with ease.

It also feels like Origin has taken the DaVinci Code's template and re-created it. Robert Langdon is present when a crime is committed. A hidden revelation may harm religious doctrine, and a mysterious religious sect with assassins try to stop Langdon from solving the riddles and making the revelations public. Change the content, match the template, and another best seller comes off the production line.

Enjoyable enough, with some worthy philosophical moments scattered amongst what feels like a guide book to art, history and religion. 
This one gets a 3.5 on the ascent of man scale.

Friday, 5 July 2019

Yesterday – Film Review. The danger of a great premise.

Imagine there’s no Beatles, it’s easy if you try…

When I first heard the premise of Yesterday, I was excited. As a life-long Beatles fan, a career-long Richard Curtis fan and someone with at least an affection and appreciation of Danny Boyle’s films, this seemed like a match made in heaven. A mystical genre film in the vane if Freaky Friday or any of a dozen other films where the main character is unhappy with their life and wishes on a star; fountain; talisman; lighting strike etc., for change and lo and behold, change is delivered with all its fantastic complications.

In this case, it’s a mysterious loss of power world-wide that wipes the memories of the world, or resets the world into a parallel universe where many significant elements of our known world are missing – for Jack Malik, the biggest of these is the lack of the Beatles. That’s right; they never existed. Only a few found themselves removed from the effects of the force that erased the elements now missing – like the Beatles, and in Jack’s case, his exemption came by being hit by a bus while riding his bicycle.

Suddenly, with his memory of Beatles’ tunes, he becomes this new world’s greatest singer-songwriter, seemingly able to come up with perfect songs any time he picks up an instrument. Ed Sheeran chances on Jack singing on local Suffolk public access TV, and needing a late replacement to support him on tour; Ed signs Jack to a tour of Russia. When they play in Moscow – Jack wheels out Back in the USSR, and on and on we go.

The problem is, where do you go from there, and it is to the credit and immense talent of Richard Curtis that this film does go somewhere. The cast is excellent, with Ed Sheeran proving his acting chops extend further than sitting around a campfire and pulling focus from an extraordinary cultural phenomenon that was GOT. Himesh Patel as Jack plays confused, guilty and undeserving extraordinarily well, and he can sing, although he’s up against it having to recreate the entire Beatles playlist. Lily James is sweet and adorable as the girl who always should have been the one, and the supporting cast do everything they need to do, with Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal as Jack’s parents standing out as they lovingly patronise and indulge their singing son.

Joel Fry does an admirable job as Rocky, the socially inept, but loveable weird best friend, who helps and hinders, with nothing but the best of intentions and delivers some of the films funniest lines. I couldn’t help feeling the character was a direct lift of Rhys Ifans’ Spike from Notting Hill, but when you write funny characters of quality, as Richard Curtis does, we forgive him for going back to that same well.

So what is the problem with Yesterday? Why did I walk away feeling ho-hum and not thoroughly entertained? It’s because the premise is as good as you can get. In an interview, Ed Sheeran commented that any person he tells the premise to gets it in a single sentence and immediately understands and wants to see the film. There lies the problem – the setup and concept are so good that what happens next, like the reference to fame within the film, becomes a poison chalice.

If Jack becomes the greatest singer/songwriter in the world and lives his life as a superstar, there would come a point where the fantasy delivers nothing more than the premise and no character growth, and that growth is what films in this genre trade on – Jim Carrey in Liar Liar, Freaky Friday or Peggy Sue Got Married. If Jack doesn’t learn and grow as a person, we’re watching Biff’s story from Back to the future, where Biff gets Marty’s sports almanack and leads a charmed life as a rewarded A-hole.

Again, it’s down to Richard Curtis to pull some rabbits out of the hat, and he does so in surprising ways – ways I have already seen derided and dismissed as sentimental whiffs in reviews, but to me, they are the only things that have stayed with me from the film.

Spoiler alert starts here. All the above is a derivation on the premise and apart from the Back in the USSR scene gives nothing new away,  but to talk about the hard turns the film pulls to keep it safe from washing up on the rocks of mediocrity, I have to talk about specific spoilers.

Jack is set up to have a conscience, never being comfortable ‘stealing’ the world’s greatest single band songbook and passing it off as his own – and this is a sound choice because anything else would have many Beatles fans up in arms over this apocalyptic world where their idols never existed, and now have their legacy usurped. Instead, from the very beginning, we’re aware that Jack feels uneasy about passing the Beatles work off as his own. At the concert in Moscow, we see a large middle-aged man amongst the crowd who hears ‘Back in the USSR’ and this fan emotes his confusion on hearing the song. It’s a hint, a flicker of an omen that Jack’s comeuppance is in play – and any film goer will read this trope and predict what is to come.

This thread continues when Jack visits Liverpool to source the places we all know so well from the references in Beatles songs. Here is another subtle, yet loving homage to the greatness of the Beatles, when Jack, as a fan and a musician who sang many of their covers, struggles to remember so many songs. I’m a huge Beatles fan, and I couldn’t for the life of me remember who did what to who in Eleanor Rigby – and Yesterday gets a lot of mileage from this very fact. During Jacks visit to these iconic locales, we see a woman who recognises the now famous Jack, and she stares at him oddly. Again it’s not overplayed, but we all know what’s coming – and this is where Curtis subverts the trope and manages to deliver something memorable and worth more than a Disney-esque mystical genre film – at least to Beatles fans if to no-one else.

At a press conference before the concert to launch Jack’s ‘greatest double album the world has ever seen’, a concert where a desperate version of Help from Jack, highlights the show, we see the fan from Moscow and the woman from Liverpool waving a yellow submarine. Again it’s a warning that jack’s comeuppance is near, as Yellow Submarine is yet to exist in this new world.

After the concert, the two come to see Jack backstage, and the moment he sees their yellow submarine, he knows the jig – or in this case, the gig – is up. Jack tries to explain his plagiarism, only to be stopped and told by these fellow Beatles fans, who also retain a memory of the music, how thankful they are to Jack for saving the songs and letting the world hear them again. The two explain they aren’t musical, so they couldn’t do what Jack’s done, and they only came to say thank you. Jack finally has others who understand his moral dilemma, and the woman from Liverpool thrusts a note into Jack’s hand with only the cryptic clue, that she did a lot of digging to get the information and she feels it will help ease Jack’s guilt.

Sure enough, Jack heads to a picturesque seaside farm, where an old man with a crooked nose and round spectacles lives out the last years of his happy life in peace – it is John Lennon, played believably in old age by Robert Carlyle, and in this new, recalibrated universe, John is alive and well.

Yes, it’s saccharine sweet and throws up all sorts of parallel universe conundrums, but it re-enforces the film as one written with the highest respect for the Beatles and nothing but reverence towards the fab four.

Ed Sheeran is all too willing to indulge in some self-deprecating good humour as he shows a good dose of respect and humility towards any comparison between his talent and that of the Beatles – and the Long and Winding Road/battle of the songwriter’s scene is the best moment of the film. 

The rest is mainly forgettable or even disappointing. That’s an unfair critique because the film is a well written, well directed, well-performed piece of escapism that is enjoyable to sit through and will no doubt play for years on smaller screens. Herein lies the danger of a great premise. The premise of Yesterday is so good that it ranks alongside the now legendary Hollywood pitch – “Danny Devito and Arnold Schwarzenegger are twins” – and from there, where do you go? 

The only possibility is to let people’s expectations down. In this case, because of the skill, talent and awareness of the tropes and playing against them, those great creative minds have at least let us down gently.

Yesterday gets a 6.5 out of ten, or in Beatles terminology, it falls somewhere between Abbey Road and the White Album.      

Friday, 5 April 2019

Thought for the day

There should be a counsellor, trained for depression, standing in front of every sushi display in Seven Eleven stores. 

There is no greater cry for help than buying Seven Eleven sushi.

A Review of Indie Author Book Promotion Sites.

Somewhere late in 2016, I decided to be more proactive in selling my online books, as opposed to simply listing them and waiting for readers to come. I looked into paying for promotions of my self-published books that were listed/hosted on Smashwords. I quickly discovered that it was far easier to work with promotion sites if you had an Amazon listing, so I quickly jumped aboard.

What I found is that self-promotion requires organisation and is expensive. Promotion sites boast hundreds of thousands of eager buyers, but having a database of followers and being able to mobilise those people to download are two very different things.

I started keeping lists and recording how many downloads I received and at what price. I thought it would be of interest to publish these results for the benefit of any other Indie-authors looking to find a way to promote their books.

I decided on book promotions that made my book free across the promotional period. This was usually 3-5 days. Amazon allows 5 days of discount promotions in any 3 month period. The most effective of the promotional sites generated continuing downloads beyond the promotion period, giving me paid downloads for some time. The better promotions also lifted me up to the front pages of Amazon in my book’s categories and this helped create a snowball effect where the promotion gathered momentum.

 November 30 2017

Finally and most importantly – these stats and opinions are from my own experiences with these sites. I’m not saying the poorer performing promotional sites are less than others, on another day, with another book, they may be stellar, but for me, on these occasions, these were the results. I will list the ease and experience in contacting those running the promotions and of the results generated by the sites themselves, although with most promotions there was little more contact than booking and confirming dates.

I’m also going to list the sites that said no to me. Often, I have greater respect for sites who don’t blindly accept every promotion. These sites take care to evaluate a book before they put their name to the promotion of that book. In some ways, setting this standard gains them a reputation as a book-promoter that readers can trust. I will certainly be trying to lift my game with these sites with my next books and try again. I’m aware some of the sites that hosted my promotions evaluated my books, but I can’t say with any certainty which ones or how vigorous that vetting process. They helped promote my books and I’m pleased they accepted me.

December 29 2017

Indie publishing for me has revived my self-belief as a writer. My first novel was written in 1999 and sat in a drawer, after many rejections, for almost 10 years. In 2011 I put that first book online under my middle name – Scott Norton – I think on some sites you can still find this listing. I didn’t want anyone I knew to know it was my book. I wanted to avoid the platitudes of friends and family who have to say nice things. I wanted to know if all those rejections were warranted and genuine readers, who knew nothing of my story, would read and enjoy what I’d written, or turn me down. The book downloaded a few thousand times over an eighteen month period and then trailed off. I forgot about it for the next 2 years.

In 2013 I did a Google ego search and was shocked to find entries of reviews of my book. 

I knew nothing of the Goodreads site at the time, and to my dismay and delight, I had over 20 ratings and reviews. Most said good things. A few complained about my style, spelling and grammar, (a lifetime battle of mine), but even those griping about presentation said largely nice things about the story. Some readers gushed – enough to help me regain my confidence and re-engage with a career that had always been a dream to pursue, and had, by 2013, run dry.

You will never hear me dissing an Author. I know how tough writing can be – let alone completing a full, coherent and entertaining novel. It’s even harder if you’re out there alone and doing it without any support; the editing, copyediting, cover design and promotion is time consuming, stressful and expensive. Hopefully, these lists and results will help others – and make sure you head to Goodreads and Amazon and at very least click on the star reviews of books you’ve read – you never know when you may be saving a writer from giving up on a dream. 

I'm also very pleased to announce I've written two books over the past eighteen months. Both are on the send-out circuit at the moment, and if no one bites, they'll be joining my other books online sometime in 2019. Famously Lost is a Rom-com set in the Australian Outback, and Finding My Voice is a YA coming of age story inspired by a young teenage boy my former partner and I raised some years ago. The boy was my partner's cousin and had some serious education and addiction issues - but in this fictional telling, he overcomes all those issues when he finds love. 

I'm very proud of both books and can't wait to release them out into the world. Stay tuned.

The following promotions are for Inner City from 2017 – January 2018.

Promotional Site
Web Address
Many Books
Books Butterfly
Was unable to find any downloads for the date of the promotion, but the book listing on Amazon went from 3millionth to 8000th (approx)
Shout My Book
Consisted mainly of tweets. Online readers increased, but I found the multiple same tweets that lasted 2 weeks more embarrassing than helpful.

Read Cheaply
Book Doggy
Choosey Bookworm
Just Kindle Books
Free Kindle books & Tips
Mega Book Deals
Reading Deals


Used bookmarketingtools.com - @ $25 – allowed application for 27 sites.
(Many sites were for free listing – usually 5-10 free listings from 300 submissions. But those sites offer upgrades to guaranteed listings at a price – tried two upgrades so far – Mega Book deals and Reading deals.)
Listings contacted through Bookmarketing tools lists free period as 20 Nov until 13 December.
Unable to determine downloads – nothing stood out on the Kindle reports page as significant increase.

Books bub – turned down.
Robin Reads – turned down

Personal Contact.
Jay from Choosey Bookworm took a little while to get back with details after payment, but when he did he explained how busy he is and was very pleasant to deal with.

The same goes with Michael Gallagher from Free Kindle Books and Tips.

List of Promotional sites taken from: https://www.indiesunlimited.com/book-promo-sites/

Book Barbarian – SciFi and Fantasy
https://www.facebook.com/groups/602196313230557/ – for Kindle Unlimited titles
http://www.ebookbooster.com/  (they have a list of sites on their home page)

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Hannah Gadsby's Nanette on Netflix - A Timely Addition to the MeToo Movement.

Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette is a comedic masterpiece.

As a one-woman show, it builds to be more than a piece of comedy, smashing through those narrow parameters to make a valuable contribution to the most prominent social discussions of our day.

Given an unassuming title, after a woman Hannah felt she could create a show from, only to discover that idea was more hope than substance, the hour special spins off into something that only Hannah Gadsby’s experience as a woman, and her history as a comedian, could deliver.

The show is like few others because, for Hannah Gadsby, timing is everything.

After ten years on the comedy circuit honing her craft, she is ready to deliver one of the most insightful, moving and emotionally disturbing contributions to the #metoo debate, and she does it in a most disarming manner until you can't help feeling unprepared for how deeply into your soul she manages to transfer her pain.

It’s heart-wrenching to see and hear this extraordinary woman bravely empty her mind on stage. She admits to being damaged from her life‘s experience and shows her courage in rebuilding herself from those low-points. As Hannah builds to her finale, it’s almost hard to take the next breath.

Hannah Gadsby‘s Nanette puts to rest any sense of shared experience by those not directly affected by the relentless micro aggressions faced by those seeking nothing more than equality, respect and safe passage.

If you’re a man publishing your opinion on a woman’s response to the #Metoo movement, you need to rethink what you're doing and listen to women, like Hannah, as she explains why we are in the midst of a social revolution that has waited too long. 

I have listened in frustration to the many, loud, white male voices explain away every contentious issue in our society in recent years. I've heard these loud voices with their wide reach, declare racism non-existant; sexism a figment of the female mind, and that homophobia is so marginal it doesn't need to be addressed. The unifying belief of these men seems to be that their experience is universal. 

It's important for debate to take place, but when a single demographic monopolise the debate, there is no debate, just a shared opinion by those unaffected by whatever inequality is under discussion.

Hannah Gadsby is another of the many thousands of women desperately trying to tell us how threatened women feel on an almost daily basis. It's easy for men to feel helpless, or protest the sentiments are exaggerated, but how much effort does it take to change our behaviour to ease another person's mind? Cross the street, drop back, or take any other precaution to make sure it's not you sending a chill through someone walking or jogging on their own at night or existing in an area hidden from view. 

If this makes you think, "Why should I change my behaviour?" or even the more commonplace protest of - “Not all men,” then you're not listening to the voices shouting loud.

Not abusing women is the very least criteria of manhood. It's not something worthy of praise. Every one of us needs to do whatever we can, no matter how small, to improve the situation.

Hannah Gadsby made me empathise with what she’s been through, but it left me feeling that I can never fully understand her experience.

As a gay man who came out thirty years ago, I related to some of what Hannah had to say. I have been attacked for being gay, and I too feel shame over my sexuality. That’s something ingrained in me from years and years of relentless ridicule and abuse towards any gay person as I came of age. That small part of Hannah's story I share and understand, but it reinforces in me a belief that I can't possibly understand the full extent of another person's experience with an issue when I don't face that particular issue from within. 

That's why listening should be the first response, not protest, or denial. 

Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette is important because it comes from someone with first-hand experience into being abused for being a woman; for her sexual identity; even for her appearance. 

Hannah doesn’t assume or comment on other people's experiences, she speaks only from her own.

If you haven’t watched Hannah Gadsby's Nanette - go to Netflix and prepare to be awed. Nanette will soon be viral, as it should be, and it should also be part of the ongoing debate.