Had you asked me before I picked up a copy of this book, if I thought a 700 page made up history of a royal family in a make belief land would be a good read, I’d of veered towards the negative.

But I would have been extremely wrong to have done so.

Turns out Fire and Blood by George R R Martin is a massive page turner. I read this hefty tome in a week. Could not put it down. It only took me a whole week to read as I was doing other things like raising the kids, working, sleeping.

I do love the Song of Fire and Ice books (Game of Thrones) and this background story covering the history of House Targaryen is a fabulous addition to the stories of Westeros.

And there is a second installment to look forward to as this 700 pager didn’t cover all of the history.

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I wrote a little while ago about opening lines from books. I was discussing the opening to my first novel The Great Wide Open and mentioned I might list some of my favourite novel opening lines, well here goes:

(Might do some endings another time)

“Hale knew before he had been in Brighton half an hour, that they meant to kill him.”

Brighton Rock, Graham Greene

“Oh God. I feel like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel”.

JPod, Douglas Coupland

“I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.  I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead.”

On The Road, Jack Kerouac

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

“It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

1984, George Orwell

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like… and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it”

The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

“’Abandon hope all ye who enter here’ is scrawled in blood red lettering in the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First and is in print large enough to be seen from the backseat of the cab as it lurches forward in the traffic leaving Wall Street.”

American Psycho, Brett Easton-Ellis

The way a writer starts a novel can really hook you into their narrative.

There are some awesome starts to novels. A few of which I might list at some point.

Why does this matter?

If you enjoy the opening line, it can be a promise of a good narrative. An exciting story, the fulfilment of why you picked up the book in the first place.

The first novel I wrote, The Great Wide Open, is a heavily fictionalised and compressed, alternate reality version of part of my first year at what in the UK we call Sixth Form (the school two schools year from aged 16-18).

I studied English Literature in those years and one of the lessons we were taught surrounded introductions to narratives We were being taught analysis of text. But I saw it as part of my education in how to write.

That first year at Sixth Form I began writing The Great Wide Open (It took several more years to complete – a common theme in my writing – finally being finished when I was 22).

As part of the novel I reflected on this lesson about beginnings and in a post modern way I included pastiche of other beginnings. See the photo with this blog of that novel’s opening page.

Maybe I was being a bit pretentious and maybe not. You tell me…

My only defence is: I was young. And like so many things in youth (see the narrative of The Great Wide Open) it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The subject of equality and how men act towards women has only become more relevant since I wrote The Joy of Ex.

The novel follows the story of a bet between two [male] friends about the nature of love and whether someone who once loved you can love you again.

The novel was written from the point of view of the men – they always say write about what you know – but I wanted to extenuate the pressures which make men behave the way they do towards women.

The ongoing themes were the three “M”s of marriage, maternity and mortgage which I had found men so feared.

They build up walls and hide from each of these types of commitment – some of these issues more than others (and some men more than other men), I depict a protagonist who has a mortgage, but a profound fear of marriage and maternity.

This created a tale to explore these themes, against a back drop of a bet, which only heightened the sense of disconnect from women.

When I first sent the manuscript to agents I got a call from one. I was pleased, I had a list of 70+ agents to send the manuscript to and the first round had resulted in a call. I assumed there would be more calls.

Flashback to 2001 and my previous novel, UHF Shadow I had sent this to lots of agents and one had called back. It was a Wednesday, I know as I was in the office late on deadline day putting the newspaper to bed and I took the call and walked away from my desk, the journalists and subs watching me stroll off to take a private call on my mobile. She wanted to see the whole novel as she liked the sample chapters I had sent. I sent these off the next day. I didn’t get a deal. But I learnt my work was good enough for all of it to be seen by an agent.

Back to the novel in hand (I may well write more about UHF Shadow another day).

I knew The Joy of Ex was better than UHF Shadow, the main criticism from people who read the earlier work was there was a story, but the premise was weak.

I took on board the constructive criticism and The Joy of Ex was premise through and through – that bet was a beautiful premise upon which hung lots of episodes which built up into a whole narrative.

In the great Chekov tradition, I loaded lots of bullets at the start and shot them off one by one. With the biggest one being shot with the reveal of the reason behind his fear of marriage and maternity.

When I took the call about The Joy of Ex after sending out only the the first wave of samples, I figured there were going to be lots of calls.

This agent said she liked the concept and would sign the book if I agreed to do one thing for her.

As I say, this was the first wave of samples, I assumed there would be lots of interest if this was anything to go by.

She asked for a complete re-write of the novel to make it from a woman’s point of view.

This: a) seemed like a bucket load of work; and b) would mean writing about something I didn’t know – I’d never been a woman, so how could I write as one?

I said: “No”.

Talk about a sliding doors moment.

That one word has no doubt defined everything which has happened to me since I spoke that simple syllable.

No other agent even so much as called me.

Sanitised versions of my concept sprung up. Maybe this is coincidence and maybe this is connected. I will never know for sure.

Since I wrote the novel the concept of toxic masculinity has become something I am aware of. Thanks in part to Tim Winton, a great Australian novelist who has an ongoing theme around masculinity in our modern world.

The two men in The Joy of Ex are completely toxic. I even led the reader up a garden path of redemption towards the end of the novel*, only for it to roll away with the wind. He was just too toxic for salvation.

I had always intended the protagonist to be an anti hero. A bastard who perhaps women would love to hate.

The type of male I was trying to create would be just the type of guy women flocked to the worse his alpha male behaviour became.

I wrote The Joy of Ex intentionally to be challenging and thought provoking. There is a line in The Doors where Val Kilmer’s Jim Morrison says: “I guess I always liked being hated” – this line was in my mind as I wrote the novel and I think this shines from the character.

Indeed, the close of the novel refers to the protagonist knowing he was exactly what his sister had called him.

I had used the word already in the novel, so avoided a second C-bomb at the end, feeling the repeat would detract from the power of using it in the first place.

The Joy of Ex was published more than a decade ago. It had premise and a plot.

In retrospect, I think I could have made the irony around the toxicity of these men more apparent. Hindsight is 2020.

Life is all about learning and I know the jump from book to book has made me a better writer, both in terms of reflecting on what I had written and the time passing between each.

In the end I self-published The Joy of Ex as I had drafted it and didn’t sell many copies. But it can be purchased for Kindle from Amazon here.

I am working on a new novel, but that is a story for another day. Hopefully a decade from now I will not be lamenting either not getting my message across as I had intended, nor another sliding doors moment over the fate of this new book.

* I certainly played with the idea of a cut away where Lorna Adams goes home to her fatherless son, but I felt that was letting them both off the hook and didn’t stand up in the logic of the narrative, so got cut.

So today the 20 year haitus of releasing works from copyright in the USA expires.

This follows Congress adding 20 years to the existing laws around copyright in the states. Finally works from 1923 expire their copyright in the USA – 20 years later than originally scheduled.

Details of what happened, why and most importantky what works are now free of copyright in the United States can be found here.

Happy reading…

Books I read in 2018

December 31, 2018

As usual I have read lots of books this last 12 months.

Ones which stand out include:

Munich by Robert Harris – manages to make an era which is history to all of us feel very much in the here and now, where all possible outcomes are options and the story we know is not enevitable.

Artemis by Andy Weir – great fun novel, follow up to The Martian, my comments from earlier in the year here.

Elysium Fire by Alistar Reynolds, good sci-fi myestery novel, which I wrote about here.

The Death of Grass by John Wyndham – a bleak novel about the quick descent to anarchy which follows a disease which kills all forms of plant in the grass family – wheat, rice, barley – anything we rely on for carbohydrate aside from root veg. Things go south pretty quickly.

Suicide Club by Rachel Heng – again one I wrote about before, here.

Bad Dad by David Walliams – recomended by my son, a good fun read, with an important message about loving your children being more important than buying them stuff (a very crucial message in a world obsessed by stuff)

//ws-eu.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=GB&source=ac&ref=tf_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=astapor-21&marketplace=amazon&region=GB&placement=1509863877&asins=1509863877&linkId=2feb7361cc00faedc258cb5090fb02cf&show_border=false&link_opens_in_new_window=false&price_color=333333&title_color=0066C0&bg_color=FFFFFF“>The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton – a beautiful novel exploring redemption, loss and manhood set in purgatory the Australian outback.

Feel free to feedback your thoughts on any of these books.

Happy reading in 2019.

Some of you may already have heard of Ready Player One. It is a speculative fiction novel which was released a few years ago with the name Ernest Cline on the cover.

The book is apparently being turned into a movie by no less a genius than Steven Spielberg. I see a massive box office hit.

The narrative contains a series of puzzles which need to be solved to inherit ownership of the VR system the whole world uses. There is a rival conglomerate trying a hostile takeover via attempting to win the contest.

After finishing the novel I was pondering some issues I had with it, these are around lack of depth of characters as well as a tendency towards telling not showing and it occurred to me all the gripes I had with it were the same as I had with The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.

The plot of Ready Player One is straight out of the Dan Brown play book and the style of writing is quite similar in my opinion.

It is not unusual for novelists trying a different genre to be asked to use a pen name so the change in direction does not effect sales of future books back in their usual arena. Speculative fiction would be a new genre for Brown as all his works I am aware of are current day thrillers.

I may be way off base here, but did Dan Brown write Ready Player One under the pen name Ernest Cline?

If he did, is there some puzzle within the novel which can be cracked to solve the identity of the writer – from what I know of him, that would be very Dan Brown.

Feel free to prove me wrong in the comments section…

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