Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes

I wake up… 

On a metaphysical level this might be some powerful writing. I can imagine all the stressed-out philosophers, after taking a break from all the hard thinking they do from 9 to 5 and kicking back with a beer to relax and be entertained, being stimulated by this line: I wake up…

Others will simply be mystified by its profoundness. The next line kind of ruins the endless loftiness of the opening line.

The touch of that cold object against my penis wakes me up.

This raises a question or two. Where is this guy? I thought he was in bed. Maybe he is, which would make that cold object all the more troubling. I read on.

I  didn't know I could urinate without being aware of it.

So this guy is in some weird situation in bed. We assume he has suffered some catastrophe but need to read on to find out. The writing is terse, blunt and full of tension. I like it. Read some random lines I've brought together:

I can’'t even make out the nearest voices. If I opened my eyes, would I be able to hear them?… But my eyelids are so heavy: two pieces of lead, coins on my tongue, hammers in my ears, a… a something like tarnished silver in my breath. It all tastes metallic. Or mineral...Then I just lay there, face down on the bed, with my arms hanging, the veins in my wrist tingling...I tighten my face muscles, I open my right eye, and I see it reflected in the squares of glass sewn onto a woman'’s handbag. That’'s what I am. 

First thing said:

"Look, Doctor, he'’s just faking..."

"Mr. Cruz…"

"Even now in the hour of his death he has to trick us!"

So it seems this person is dying or perhaps is just faking it. In any case, there is an uncontrollable desire to read on.

Verdict: Pass

This is part of the series: the top 100 novels from Daniel S. Burt's book called Novel 100, the top 100 novels of all time. There is debate of course as to what should be on that list, but his opinions are as good as any. The Death of Artemio Cruz comes in as the 72nd best novel of all time.

Sincerely,
Theodore Moracht

Sunday, 19 October 2014

The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh

The first indication that her father was unwell had come in June.

There is an indication of conflict in this sentence and there is an indication of characters though the slipping in of the month waters this line down. If something else had been added, like they learned about the father when, say something else was happening, the sentence would have been more complex in its conflict. That it's happening in June does not make me care more, and every word of an opening line needs to make me care. That is the only way to get me reading more.

First thing said:

"Lotta?"

This comes early on page one, as a scene begins to unfold - the moment the father is ill and returning from a trip. The balance between narrative, dialogue, description and back story is well executed and well proportioned, which means that the opening pace of the novel is quick enough to pull the reader in as it moves towards the hook which is buried somewhere later. It does start to slow down by the time we get to chapter 2, primarily with back story. Chapter 2 begins thus:

When Frances's parents first married, her father had lived as close to respectability as he was able.

The focus of this opening is on establishing the mood and back story. This is fine, but it will not hook as effectively as, say, an opening showcasing a giant tomato staggering down the street, gobbling up first borns.

I do like the title and I think it adds to increasing the interest in picking this up, though perhaps not with sticking with it.

Verdict: Pass (barely)

Sincerely,
Theodore Moracht

Saturday, 18 October 2014

The Chinese Orange Mystery by Ellery Queen

Miss Diversey fled Dr. Kirk's study followed by a blistering mouthful of ogrish growls. 

A lot has been said of this mystery with its seemingly unsolvable puzzle. I started reading this and managed to get quite a ways in, more than half, before I stopped. After a while the characters started to bug me and I got to wishing they'd all be found lying there dead on the next page. When I realized that wasn't going to happen, I chucked the book. So I never did learn the solution to this, not that I couldn't look it up if I wanted to, I could, I just don't care.

The opening line epitomizes how this story is told. Fleety characters with melodramatic posturing. Nevertheless, there is character and conflict of a sort, and it's brief and to the point. The conflict, however, is not remarkable, but in a sense it doesn't need to be in the first sentence - though I prefer a sign of creative genius in the opening line, you know, something that hooks me and won't let go. This let's go.

The rest of the paragraph is long, windy, descriptive and a little funny towards the end.

She stood still in the corridor outside the old gentleman's door, her cheeks burning and one of her square washed-out hands pressed to the outraged starch of her bosom. She could hear the angry septuagenarian scuttling about the study in his wheelchair like a Galapagos turtle, muttering anathemas upon her white-capped head in a fantastic potpourri of ancient Hebrew, classic Greek, French, and English.

First thing said:

"And don't come back, do you hear me?" 

Verdict: Fail

Sincerely,
Theodore Moracht

Friday, 17 October 2014

The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad

About the Author

Adolf Hitler was born in Austria on April 20, 1889.

I think there is a hook here, as the premise of the novel is introduced early. As this falls under the alternate history genre, it caters to a very particular reader. But Hitler roaming around the US is bound to amuse most people. The next paragraph does so much to pull a reader in.

As a young man he migrated to Germany and served in the German army during the Great War. After the war, he dabbled briefly in radical politics in Munich before finally emigrating to New York in 1919. While learning English, he eked out a precarious existence as a sidewalk artist and occasional translator in New York's bohemian haven, Greenwich Village. After several years of this freewheeling life, he began to pick up odd jobs as a magazine and comic illustrator. He did his first interior illustration for the science-fiction magazine Amazing in 1930. By 1932, he was a regular illustrator for the science-fiction magazines, and, by 1935, he had enough confidence in his English to make his debut as a science-fiction writer. He devoted the rest of his life to the science-fiction genre as a writer, illustrator, and fanzine editor. Although best known to present-day SF fans for his novels and stories. Hitler was a popular illustrator during the Golden Age of the thirties, edited several anthologies, wrote lively reviews, and published a popular fanzine. Storm, for nearly ten years.

He won a posthumous Hugo at the 1955 World Science-Fiction Convention for Lord of the Swastika, which was completed just before his death in 1953. For many years, he had been a popular figure at SF conventions, widely known in science-fiction fandom as a wit and nonstop raconteur. Ever since the book's publication, the colorful costumes he created in Lord of the Swastika have been favorite themes at convention masquerades. Hitler died in 1953, but the stories and novels he left behind remain as a legacy to all science-fiction enthusiasts.

This should be treated as a preface or prologue as it is obviously part of the fiction of the novel. It reveals the promise and hook of sorts right off the bat. It's slightly creative to think of Hitler as a writer and biker who immigrated to America.

With a great groaning of tired metal and a hiss of escaping steam, the roadsteamer from Gormond came to a halt in the grimy yard of the Pormi depot, a mere three hours late; quite a respectable performance by Borgravian standards. 

This line means that the plot is arriving in a vehicle.

Assorted, roughly humanoid, creatures shambled from the steamer displaying the usual Borgravian variety of skin hues, body parts, and gaits. Bits of food from the more or less continuous picnic that these mutants had held throughout the twelve-hour trip clung to their rude and, for the most part, threadbare clothing. A sour stale odor clung to this gaggle of motley specimens as they scuttled across the muddy courtyard toward the unadorned concrete shed that served as a terminal.

Usually descriptive writing slows the pace, and if it's early in the novel, can unhook a reader fairly quickly, but I like the writing here and the description is filled with conflict.

First thing said:

"Day pass, citizen, or citizen candidate?"

Verdict: Pass

Sincerely,
Rudy Globird

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar

TABLE OF INSTRUCTIONS

In its own way, this book consists of many books, but two books above all.

The first can be read in a normal fashion and it ends with Chapter 56, at the close of which there are three garish little stars which stand for the words The End. Consequently, the reader may ignore what follows with a clean conscience.

The second should be read by beginning with Chapter 73 and then following the sequence indicated at the end of each chapter. In case of confusion or forgetfulness, one need only consult the following list: etc.

This is how my copy of the book begins. It's an interesting idea if it's true, I mean reading a book out of order or that there are two different ways to read a book, in two different orders that would produce two different stories.

Chapter 1 begins like this:

WOULD I find La Maga? 

This raises a question but there is no reason to care.

Most of the time it was just a case of my putting in an appearance, going along the Rue de Seine to the arch leading into the Quai de Conti, and I would see her slender form against the olive-ashen light which floats along the river as she crossed back and forth on the Pont des Arts, or leaned over the iron rail looking at the water. It was quite natural for me to climb the steps to the bridge, go into its narrowness and over to where La Maga stood. 

The writing style is descriptive yet tight. Nevertheless, this opening fails to hook me. It is literary fiction and therefore one must make a conscious decision to read this and carry on with shear will, as the writer has other things on his mind besides hooking.

First thing said:

"You couldn't do it," she said. "You think too much before you do anything."

This is near the end of chapter 3, so characters saying things doesn't figure into the story telling process in this novel, at least not in the beginning.

Verdict: Fail

Sincerely,
Theodore Moracht

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Thank You for Smoking by Christopher Buckley

Nick Naylor had been called many things since becoming chief spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, but until now no one had actually compared him to Satan.

Character, premise and a tantalizing hint of conflict in the form of being accused of being not unlike Satan starts this book off. The opening paragraph is witty, descriptive, creative and ends with:

WARNING: SOME PEOPLE WILL SAY ANYTHING TO SELL CIGARETTES.

Tone is well established and one can't help but think this will be a fun read.

The rest of the prologue goes on to tell us that Nick works for the cigarette companies and is about to give a speech in front of health professionals. Nick that proceeds to spin, with expertise, in favor of the smoking campaign, making the anti-smoking camp look like a bunch of murderous doctors bent on taking away our core freedoms. Fun.

Chapter 1:

There was a thick stack of WHILE YOU WERE OUTS when he got back to the Academy's office in one of the more interesting buildings on K Street, hollowed out in the middle with a ten-story atrium with balconies dripping with ivy.

A little overwritten, but at least chapter 1 takes over where the prologue left off and isn't about different people in a different place.The paragraphs are long and descriptive slowing the narrative down, but most readers should be hooked by the prologue and be able to weather their way through the long, rambling opening paragraphs of chapter 1.

First thing said:

"Believe it or not, I'm delighted to be here at the Clean Lungs 2000 symposium."

Verdict: Pass

Sincerely,
Rudy Globird

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Horns by Joe Hill

Ignatius Martin Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things.

There is an element of preamble in this line: drunk guy does bad things. Read on to find out if you care; if you dare.

The next line:

He woke the next morning with a headache, put his hands to his temples, and felt something unfamiliar, a pair of knobby pointed protuberances. 
.
Damn those protuberances. In chapter 1, which is so short, not even a page, we learn that this guy wakes up with horns, hence the title. Now the question is, what the heck did this guy do last night in a drunken stupor that warrants being branded with horns? But it is nice that the hook and premise are revealed right out of the gate. The stakes have been set and now the reader reads on to see how Ignatius deals with his protuberances.

It sounds obvious for a horror story, and in a way a little cheesy sounding: a guy with horns. Let the jokes begin.

First thing said:

"I'm sick."

Verdict: Pass

Sincerely,
Theodore Moracht

Saturday, 11 October 2014

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped.

There are a couple things about this opening line that work. First the concept of Sacrifice Poles raises a question or two, and secondly the fact that the narrator's brother escaped. One assumes that this means either from a mental asylum or a prison. One doesn't escape from, say, an office job in Barrie, Ontario. Anyway, this raises other questions, like who is this brother, and more specifically, what has he done to be somewhere that needed escaping from?

The next and final line of the first paragraph contains another puzzling word:

I already knew something was going to happen; the Factory told me.

While not very scary yet, there is a mood that is created in this opening paragraph with the capitalization of Sacrifice Poles and Factory. It makes one wonder if this isn't set in Kentucky or just down the street from the set of Deliverance. Establishing the mood early is important in dark fantasy and the wording in this opening line can't help but give one the creeps, at least a little.

In the next paragraph we learn about the Sacrifice Poles hold animals parts, like a rat head with dragonflies and another with a seagull and two mice.

First thing said:

"Diggs was just here."

Verdict: Pass

Sincerely,
Theodore Moracht

Friday, 10 October 2014

Snow White Must Die by Nele Neuhaus

The rusty iron staircase leading downstairs was narrow and steep.

After the all important introduction of a rusty staircase we get Mr. Pronoun feeling for the light switch. The opening paragraph is long and descriptive with heavy words designed to create an overwhelming sense of atmosphere akin to a 1970's B film Gothic epic - until a Bryan Adams' song starts playing, that is. Fortunately, we're not made privy to which.

First thing said:

"Hello, Snow White."

The point of the prologue is that Ms. Pronoun, called Snow White, must be kept hidden. We can infer she is dead, until the writer comes out and states this directly, for those who don't have a very high reading comprehension level. This pronoun must be a little weird for keeping a dead body and pretending it is still alive, talking to it, dreaming for it to smile. So there is a little mystery here that raises some questions. But as I've seen Psycho, I can't say I'm too shocked by this plot point. Truth be told, weirdos keeping dead bodies as companions is getting a bit cliche in fiction.

Chapter 1:

Thursday, November 6, 2008

He didn't say "See you later."

The reason why is apparent in the next line:

Nobody who was let out of the slammer ever said "See you later."

The pronounolgy is ripe in this opening. Mr. Pronoun is let out of prison. Not much conflict here, unless the guy is homicidal or something.

Setting is established first to establish mood. The pronounology only adds to this effect and is obviously intentional. Doing it this way may hook some readers, but in my experience and to my taste, it comes off as melodramatic and, well, cheesy.

Verdict: Pass (barely)

Sincerely,
Rudy Globird

Thursday, 9 October 2014

The Corpse Bridge by Stephen Booth

Thursday 31 October

Dusk was falling on the Corpse Bridge by the time Jason Shaw reached the river.

The rest of the paragraph is about weather coupled with the problem that this person is going to be late. The only interesting thing about this paragraph is the name Corpse Bridge. But that isn't enough to pull me in; after all, it is the title of the novel, so the name of the bridge comes as no surprise. I like the title; it's effective and would work better in conjunction with the opening line to maximize the hook. Repeating the title in the opening line reads like a wasted opportunity, a redundancy.

Oh, and the fact that it is Halloween doesn't hook. Why should it? Nothing disturbing or evil ever happens on Halloween.

The second paragraph begins with more weather:

Jason had come out unprepared for the downpour.

This makes it seem like the biggest problem in the beginning, what one might call the inciting event, is the rainy weather.

Then Jason sees a person running on the other side of the bridge and that's it - the narrative is interrupted with a break and POV switch to two different characters on page 3.

First thing said:

"It was definitely you."

Verdict: Fail

Sincerely,
Theodore Moracht

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

A Good Marriage by Stephen King

The one thing nobody asked in casual conversation, Darcy thought in the days after she found what she found in the garage, was this: How was your marriage?

By paragraph 3 we get the bio of this character starting with: She had been born.... The back story dump goes on for pages and would be a total fail if it weren't for the fact that life is not perfect and filled with some conflict, which is all that's needed to make life interesting to read about. Nevertheless, I can't help but wonder if King is trying to put the classics to shame with all the back story so early and so dense. Darcy's whole life is covered in chapter 1, bringing us right up to the garage.

Chapter 2 begins with the dilemma of not have batteries in the remote control, and not having the right ones in the house. It is explained that there are other sizes, C's and D's and tiny triple A's but no double A's! So she must go out into the garage because she doesn't know how to change the channel manually. But I ain't buying it. At this point King is giving me every reason to stop caring about the garage, as he seems more interested in beating around the bushes with life history, batteries and TV shows. I feel the overwhelming urge to stop reading now.

However, I think this opening line has enough to raise a question or two. What was it she found and why is it of interest that no one is asking about her marriage?

First thing said:

"No coin collections?"

Verdict: Fail

Sincerely,
Theodore Moracht

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Koko by Peter Straub

At three o'clock i the afternoon of a grey, blowing mid-November day, a baby doctor named Michael Poole looked down through the windows of his second-floor room into the parking lot of the Sheraton Hotel.

I have high standards when it comes to horror. The standard is that I must be scared or disturbed on the first page, and/or I must find something unsettling in the writing. I use The Haunting of Hill House as my guiding light. That opening line is about as perfect as it gets for a horror novel. I rarely see anything that comes close to it, not even from the so-called experts of horror like Stephen King or Peter Straub.

This line begins with that age-old cliche: weather, before shifting to some guy looking out a window. It is not scary, though is perhaps a little moody. In support of Mood we have phrasing like that of baby doctor which does unsettle, ever so slightly. As well, the wording in places support the dark fantasy mood in the opening paragraph: we have words like lunatic, grinding, frustrated, enemy, damn and sacrificed. But it takes more than the right wording to hook a horror fanatic.

Mood is vital to getting the reader in the mood to be scared, but it needs to be in conjunction with character and conflict and not introduced first all by itself, as if there is some order to unrolling the literary devices in order to tell a story.

First thing said:

"Well, damn."

Verdict: Fail

With horror novels I don't want the promise of fear. I want it on the first page and in the first sentence. If the opening doesn't have the goods, then a horror novel is not doing what it's supposed to be doing on page 1 and therefore will not hook. This hooks because it contains the byline hook. If John Smith wrote this, with this opening, it would never see the light of day, which is to say, there is justice in the Universe, just not in these parts.

Sincerely,
Theodore Moracht

Monday, 6 October 2014

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in the village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.

The next sentence is about the riverbed and pebbles and then with the third sentence of the first paragraph do we get the beginning of a hook:

Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust the raised powdered the leaves of the trees.

What's of interest is the troop movement and not the fact that they're making everything dusty. But this beginning is all about painting a picture of the scene, the fields and trees and weather before introducing character and conflict. But with the mention of troops the reader has something human to hold onto until concrete characters and conflict come, that is to say when the story actually starts, which doesn't take too long. It is mostly telling in chapter 1 and 2 which establishes the tone and mood. It tells of the struggles the fighting man had in World War 1, things like poor weather, disease, bullets.

First thing said:

"Priest today with girls."

Odd beginning of speech in any novel, as a captain picks on and bullies a priest as that is the only entertainment fighting men had. It's quite good and rather funny and is fairly early midway through chapter 2.

The opening line has no hook and is nothing to write home about, but by the end of the short chapter 1 it's possible for readers to get pulled in.

Verdict: Pass (barely)

This is part of the series: the top 100 novels from Daniel S. Burt's book called Novel 100, the top 100 novels of all time. There is debate of course as to what should be on that list, but his opinions are as good as any. A Farewell to Arms is considered the 73rd best novel of all time.

Sincerely,
Theodore Moracht

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

When I reached 'C' Company lines, which were at the top of the hill, I paused and looked back at the camp, just coming into full few below me through the grey mist of early morning.

Thus begins the prologue. We have an unobtrusive introduction of setting - that of a military conflict, presumably that of World War 1, with a little weather to dull or soften the blow.

Chapter 1:

"I have been here before," I said; I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were creamy with meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of peculiar splendour, and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest.

I think this is a classic example of abusing the semicolon, using them as if they are chains pulling all the sentences together as they are being dragged across the page. The description of weather past is also to blame for making this line looked bloated. I mean all of that line just to say: I was there before. If I had a friend who rambled on like that I'd be in jail for assault.

First thing said:

"Has Mr Hooper been round?"

The prologue is of some interest with scenes and conflict and characters. It's long though, and there are lots of interruptions to the forward narrative.

Verdict: Pass (barely)

This is part of the series: the top 100 novels from Daniel S. Burt's book called Novel 100, the top 100 novels of all time. There is debate of course as to what should be on that list, but his opinions are as good as any. Brideshead Revisited ranks as the 74th greatest novel of all time.

Sincerely,
Theodore Moracht

Saturday, 4 October 2014

The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope

I  can never bring myself to believe it, John," said Mary Walker, the pretty daughter of Mr. George Walker, attorney of Silverbridge. 

With an opening that contains dialogue we are usually forced to keep reading in order to understand what is happening. With this line there is a hint of trouble, but no way to surmise what that conflict might be. It could be about anything from a lost puppy to a cross-dressing priest. Though, the later is somewhat unlikely considering it's Trollope.

So let's read on and see if there is a hook in the rest of the first paragraph.

Walker and Winthrop was the name of the firm, and they were respectable people, who did all the solicitors' business that had to be done in that part of Barsetshire on behalf of the Crown, were employed on the local business of the Duke of Omnium who is great in those parts, and altogether held their heads up high, as provincial lawyers often do. They,—the Walkers,—lived in a great brick house in the middle of the town, gave dinners, to which the county gentlemen not unfrequently condescended to come, and in a mild way led the fashion in Silverbridge. "I can never bring myself to believe it, John," said Miss Walker.

Nope, no hook there, just back story. Then:

"You'll have to bring yourself to believe it," said John, without taking his eyes from his book.

"A clergyman,—and such a clergyman too!"

Suddenly the cross-dressing priest is looking more and more like an option until we learn that this clergyman is in debt. Oh, the tension!

This is part of the series: the top 100 novels from Daniel S. Burt's book called Novel 100, the top 100 novels of all time. There is debate of course as to what should be on that list, but his opinions are as good as any. The Last Chronicle of Barset comes in as the 75th best novel of all time.

Verdict: Pass (barely)

Sincerely,
Theodore Moracht

Thursday, 2 October 2014

The Mothers by Jennifer Gilmore

November 2009

We were headed for the Verrazano Bridge, caught in traffic.

Great another opening that's stuck in traffic. So while we wait, and the characters wait in the car, why not take this opportunity for some superfluous information, on weather and seasons and some back story?

It was several weeks before thanksgiving, which I remember because there was a massive billboard hanging from a crumbling brick building off a highway in Sunset Park.

Here the narrator is ensuring the reader that he/she/whoever is not going to be one of those pesky unreliable narrators, as he/she/whoever goes out of her way to prove that it is a certain amount of ambiguous time before the holiday. The next paragraph talks about the weather: ...heat and gas from cars rose in waves.

First thing said:

"Honey."

The story problem on the opening pages is that someone is not getting pregnant. So with a title like The Mothers, this is certainly a problem.

On the plus side, the tone and mood is established right away, with some characters being revealed and the writing is light and easy. Still, I don't see a hook in the first couple of pages, besides the barren, infertile, unfruitful womb and/or impotence element. For some this might make for gripping reading and pull them in, but for me? Nah. Once I'm old, fat, bald and impotent I may come back to this opening with a new-found understanding and appreciation, but until then - next book on the shelf.

Verdict: Fail

Sincerely,
Rudy Globird

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

It is hard to understand nothing, but the multiverse is full of it.

Honestly, I have not read any Pratchett. He's not even a genre I am well read in, but I like this opening line because it makes me stop and think for a moment. Does this mean that it is hard to understand nothing, meaning it is hard to be dumb, or does this mean it is hard to understand the concept of nothing? The second option naturally presents for more stimulating philosophical conversation, though I wouldn't mind a discussion on the first interpretation either, which would lead to some fascinating ridicule. The second line answers this question.

Nothing travels everywhere, always ahead of something, and in the great cloud of unknowing nothing yearns to become something, to break out, to move, to feel, to change, to dance and to experience -  in short, to be something.

So this is about the second, that nothing has a somethingness about it. I like the obvious reference to that great mystical work: The Cloud of Unknowing that every fifth grader has read or at least can relate to, which states, so to speak, that in order to know anything about something one must first give up what one thinks one knows about it, which is to say that to know something of the unknown we must unknow something in relation to what is known about the object of our desire: the unknown.

Anyway what has all this to do with plot and character, or are we reading a fictionalized account of Dionysius the Areopagite? The first two paragraphs read like an origin myth of some sort before we get into setting, which for this genre is fairly essential early in order to establish the worthiness of a fantasy novel, but it is brief and we are soon, on page 2 in fact, introduced to characters.

First thing said:

"No."

Verdict: Pass (Barely)

Sincerely,
Theodore Moracht

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The Jaguar by T. Jefferson Parker

The black van rolled across the barnyard in the rain and stopped beneath an enormous oak tree.

This opening line fails to hook and is doubly boring because of the two cliches employed, the weather opening and the car opening. This might be forgiven if the next line introduced conflict or character but the next line doesn't. See for yourself:

It was a large vehicle but under the canopy it was poorly visible, a dark shape within greater darkness.

For some reason it is more important to describe this nondescript vehicle than to dive into conflict. Nevertheless, as it's these two lines allow the reader to assume something is not right.  Then men spill out of the van and advance to a stable and then to a ranch house. This could be an invasion of Jehovah's Witnesses or a SWAT team. Meanwhile a man is upstairs watching as he buttons his jeans. The paragraph ends with:

He was twenty-one years old.

Like I need to know this now. Who cares how old he is. Tell me when it matters.

First thing said:

"Men are here."

This comes on the first page and only confirms what the opening paragraph revealed anyway, so it's actually redundant.

However, by the end of page 1 a scene is rapidly unfolding, in which men with guns are storming a house. It escalates quickly. The man who is 21 and who buttoned his jeans, Bradley, is knocked out and when he wakes up he is in a very small, confined space on page 3. Most readers will be pulled in as the tension rises as this man tries to figure out where he is. Then the van men present conditions this Bradley must meet in ten days or his wife gets it; they'll mail him her skin rolled up in a small box, and so begins a ticking-clock plot scenario, which is always good for some suspense and quick-paced reading.

Verdict: Pass

I would score this higher but the opening line is an utter fail. Obviously some people don't value the power of the opening line.

Sincerely,
Rudy Globird

Monday, 29 September 2014

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

The first ray of light which illumines the gloom, and converts into a dazzling brilliancy that obscurity in which the earlier history of the public career of the immortal Pickwick would appear to be involved, is derived from the perusal of the following entry in the Transactions of the Pickwick Club, which the editor of these papers feels the highest pleasure in laying before his readers, as a proof of the careful attention, indefatigable assiduity, and nice discrimination, with which his search among the multifarious documents confided to him has been conducted.

A very long first sentence that because of its verbosity, it has a sarcastic tone to it, giving the Pickwick club an authoritarian air. On the surface this line reads like preamble but because it's purpose is to establish tone it reads like a cheesy announcement giving the reader a taste of more to come. Some might consider it overwritten, but one can't help think that is the intended effect.

What follows is the announcing of the rather ostentatious minutes of their meetings.

First thing said:

"Cab!"

part of the charm of this novel is its silliness and what better way to convey that then with the style and tone of this novel.

This is part of the series: the top 100 novels from Daniel S. Burt's book called Novel 100, the top 100 novels of all time. There is debate of course as to what should be on that list, but his opinions are as good as any. The Pickwick Papers ranks as the 76th best novel of all time.

Verdict: Pass (barely)

Sincerely,
Theodore Moracht

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull. 

Who hasn't heard of this story? It is a classic adventure story loved by many (at least the TV and film versions), but the opening line of this is horrible. Perhaps back in the day this was the way to start, but as it has nothing to do with being deserted on an island, it is preamble and quite uninteresting preamble at that, not to mention that it's a massive back story dump. But this was the early days of novel writing and the writer was still finding his way.

The opening paragraph goes on in the same uninteresting way, talking about people and onomastics that really have nothing to do with the the premise; yes, we learn a little about Crusoe but in an encyclopedic entry manner.

He got a good estate by merchandise, and leaving off his trade, lived afterwards at York, from whence he had married my mother, whose relations were named Robinson, a very good family in that country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but, by the usual corruption of words in England, we are now called—nay we call ourselves and write our name—Crusoe; and so my companions always called me.

This history goes on and on and on until we learn that he's a bit of a sailor though perhaps not made for such work, not that this is conflict that anyone would care about. Why couldn't this start with being on the island and then mention this boring stuff later when the reader would mildly care?

This is part of the series: the top 100 novels from Daniel S. Burt's book called Novel 100, the top 100 novels of all time. There is debate of course as to what should be on that list, but his opinions are as good as any. Robinson Crusoe sits at number 77 as the best novel ever.

Verdict: Fail

Sincerely,
Theodore Moracht

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain

I drove out to Glendale to put three new truck drivers on a brewery company bond, and then I remembered this renewal over in Hollywoodland. 

This line doesn't offer much except a location. Not a great opening line to what many say is a great novel. However, the rest of the first paragraph is where the hook is.

I decided to run over there. That was how I came to this House of Death, that you’ve been reading about in the papers. It didn’t look like a House of Death when I saw it. It was just a Spanish house, like all the rest of them in California, with white walls, red tile roof, and a patio out to one side. It was built cock-eyed. The garage was under the house, the first floor was over that, and the rest of it was spilled up the hill any way they could get it in. You climbed some stone steps to the front door, so I parked the car and went up there. A servant poked her head out.

The 'House of Death' will attract attention and raise lots of questions, even if it sounds a little campy by today's standards.

First thing said comes next:

“Is Mr. Nirdlinger in?”

“I don’t know, sir. Who wants to see him?”

“Mr. Huff.”

“And what’s the business?”

“Personal.”

Getting in is the tough part of my job, and you don’t tip what you came for till you get where it counts. “I’m sorry, sir, but they won’t let me ask anybody in unless they say what they want.”

Dialogue establishes the film noir tone of the novel and the toughness of the narrator, so this reveals character and since dialogue comes sooner rather than later, we can surmise that the writing style will be engaging, as the characters can tell their stories without lots of narrative text.

I like how after the hook in the form of House of Death the writer moves onto a scene without answering the question the hook raises. This intensifies the suspense level. Lesser writers try to do the same thing, but they do it by delaying to answer the hook by way of boring back story or setting description. This fails to maintain a hook or hold attention. If people keep reading, it is only because they either have nothing else better to do, or are hooked by the byline, or have already paid and have no choice but to continue in the hope they aren't getting ripped off. If a writer wishes to delay the hook to create suspense and tension the best way to delay is like in this novel, by introducing a scene that has its own conflict and suspense that reveals characters we can start caring about.

Verdict: Pass

Sincerely,
Theodore Moracht

Friday, 26 September 2014

Don't Want to Miss a Thing by Jill Mansell

It was almost midnight and Dexter Yates was in bed with his girlfriend when his phone burst into life.

This would be cool if this were about a phone that came to life and started killing people because it had gone insane after being exposed for so long to people talking nonsense about useless things, droning on about nonsense forever. I know I would lose it.

Alas, this is nothing more than the bed setting cliche and phone call opening cliche colliding.

The rest of the paragraph goes like this:

Possessed of lightning reflexes, she grabbed it off the bedside table before he could reach it himself.

Then the next paragraph is all of one sentence:

Honestly, some people were so mistrustful.

The use of past tense here makes it sound like people were mistrustful but aren't now.

First thing said:

"It says Laura."

The girl asks who the Laura is who's calling Dexter but Dexter, heroically refuses to say. Why this is heroic, is beyond me, I mean it's not like the guy whipped out his Excalibur and slayed a freckled dragon or anything. Instead he says, "Someone an awful lot nicer than you."

Quite the nasty thing to say to a girl while in bed, but some guys are just expressive that way, I guess. Anyway, the scene is about Dexter learning that his sister just had a baby. So the writing is structured in such a way to make the story sound more interesting than it is. So kudos to the writer for that.

Verdict: Fail

Sincerely,
Theodore Moracht

Thursday, 25 September 2014

In the Land of Birdfishes by Rebecca Silver Slayter

When I had eyes, I saw my sister's hair (yellow), my mother's back, small rocks that the water took out and in from the shore with gasps of its deep ocean lungs.

The opening paragraph goes on to explain that this narrator also lost her hands, lost everything very slowly. Then the next paragraph begins with back story with some family history. Not very interesting at least not at the beginning. A scene unfolds on page 3, but I can't get into it, as it's a family beach scene, and without introducing conflict first, I have no reason to care. The author goes the route of trying to get readers caring about the characters first. The way to do that is to have them confronted with conflict.

Nevertheless, there is a kernel of a hook in the opening paragraph, as this character seems to be falling apart. This will attract most readers, but if the writer doesn't get back to it soon, readers like me lose interest, unless another problem is introduced or at least foreshadowed.

First thing said:

"Let's go with Mother."

There is not much to add or say. The back story is standard family history stuff. There are a couple nice one liners but not enough to keep reading past a couple pages. I'm not the only one, as the library copy I have was bookmarked a couple pages in.

Verdict: Fail

Sincerely,
Theodore Moracht

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

The Accidental Bride by Christina Skye

It was a beautiful wedding.

Preamble.  But wait there is a point to this rather nondescript opening line. Read on:

The groom got sick. The bride overslept. The best man was a dog.

See what the author did here? OMG, LOL!!!! You just know this is going to be, like, so totally jocular and laughable. The quirkiness of the wedding continues, but I skipped the rest of this prologue until the end to find out if there was something actually beautiful about the wedding, or if this novel begins with sarcasm, which rarely hooks me. Read it yourself if you are dying to know.

The third paragraph:

And the day had barely begun.

There's more craziness? Be still my beating heart. Too bad about starting a sentence and a paragraph with a conjunction that's been forced into an unnatural act as a failed conjunctive adverb.

Chapter 1:

Arizona
One month earlier

The restaurant kitchen was a scene right out of World War III.

No one knows what World War III looks like, though I googled it and it could look like anything from this to this.  Therefore, making a comparison to something that doesn't exist is ineffectual. Making such comparisons is like making a comparison to how a Pintian from the Planet Googg in the 34V2th century of the 30th era ruled by the three-headed Hyper-Moodian and a Half would write to those on Earth. That is to say, why compare something to something that doesn't exist? To provide a simile (to appease English teachers?) that's only purpose is to explore absurd hyperbole devoid of meaning to establish tone? Fortunately, the author explains what a scene from World War III would look like:

Pots churned, grills smoked and a dozen harried workers danced to avoid each other. It was cramped, hot and noisy - one step away from chaos.

So World War III will look like kitchen workers dancing? Suddenly the future seems so bright.

The opening page goes on to explain that Jilly couldn't be happier managing this busy kitchen before continuing that sometimes she hated it being so successful and busy. Does this character have multiple-personality disorder? No! She prefers the kitchen life to the shmoozing life. So why not hire a hostess and work in the kitchen then? Because she has a chef who does the cooking, and I'm sure that person is ready to snap and go berserk with Jilly going back there and choreographing the kitchen workers' dance.

At this point I have a question, not about this novel of course, as there is no conflict that raises any questions in the opening sentences; rather, why do romance novels sometimes start with food and trifling human discord? My theory is that the happy ending is human accord on a full tummy. That is the happily ever after. For men, it's love, a steak and a beer; for women, it's love, a glass of wine and a chocolate souffle. Without yummy-yummy, there's no lovey-dovey.

First thing said:

"Are you ready?"

Verdict: Fail

The worst thing about this opening is not the fact it is ridiculously written, but that people will think it isn't ridiculous and will actually be hooked. This kind of mental degeneration may actually closer resemble WW III than dancing kitchen workers. But I hope I'm wrong.

Sincerely,
Rudy Globird

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry

It's a beautiful night and no mistake.

I don't now about anyone else but I find this sentence somewhat confusing. What is not the mistake? That it is not beautiful or that we shouldn't doubt it, as in make no mistake about it. Or more probably, that this beautiful night was no mistake and was designed this way by someone or something? As well, beautiful night alludes to weather, so we'll tag the weather opening cliche to this one. The next line and rest of the opening paragraph is:

You would never think there was a war somewhere.

This opening paragraph is in quotes meaning someone is saying this. Next line:

These less than prophetic words were spoken by a young navy second lieutenant, on the wide, night-bedarkened deck of our supply ship, bound for Accra.

The use of night-bedarkened  makes this line overwritten. Plus, though I'm no expert, in the navy I don't think there is a rank of second lieutenant; sub-lieutenant or junior lieutenant I've heard, but second lieutenant is a rank in the army equivalent to ensign in the navy. A cursory search online seems to confirm this.

So this opening basically establishes that this is a historical novel set during World War II, but with inaccurate information one wonders how effective this will be at immersing the reader into the time period. I suspect for most people it will work as they don't really care about little things like facts, grammar and punctuation when reading a story.

Verdict: Fail

Sincerely,
Theodore Moracht

Monday, 22 September 2014

Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen

A few minutes after two in the morning Rebecca Winter woke to the sound of a gunshot and sat up in bed.

This opening line which is all of the first paragraph has two cliches right out of the gate, which surprises me. The title is not bad, but it does have the subtle waft of artsy-farsty and even though I'm not a big fan of the artsy-fartsy genre, the one thing one can usually count on is that they don't start with any of the usual cliches, except perhaps on occasion the weather cliche opening. Here we have the bed setting and the gun opening. For a moment I wonder if I'm reading Ian Fleming.

Then we get a correction, it may not be two in the morning which provides an escape into back story about the kitchen floor, loose steps in the back yard and outlets as these are apparently more important than the gunshot.

We return t the gunshot on page 2 and another correction as Rebecca doesn't actually know what a gunshot sounds like and so can't be certain it was a gunshot because...and then some more back story about New York City, vacations, beaches, vineyards and the husband. After a page of her life story about a mother, childhood, the doorman and her father the author reassures us that there is most likely some conflict in this opening and that Rebecca is almost certain it is a gunshot as she lies in bed in a room without outlets. She looks for her watch, which provides another opportunity for back story about her marriage before returning to the watch which is difficult to read especially in a room fringed by large pine trees which begins a paragraph about setting and weather.

Then on the next page Rebecca turns over ready to ignore the gunshot as it becomes a memory which is how the reader should feel after all the back story. The forward narrative becomes just a distant memory.

Then there are two more pages of back story which I skipped until we get this sentence:

Bam bam bam.

So it was a gunshot!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! But by this point the writer has persuaded me not to care.

First thing said:

"That's a beauty!"

Verdict: Fail

Sincerely,
Rudy Globird

Saturday, 20 September 2014

The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

How happy I am that I am gone! 

For a second I thought that this was in reference to the guy getting ready to blow his brains out. A little misdirection and foreshadowing that leads to confusion can go a long way in hooking a reader. The next lines:

My dear friend, what a thing is the heart of man! To leave you, from whom I have been inseparable, whom I love so dearly, and yet to feel happy!

According to Elmore Leonard, Goethe has used up his allotment of exclamation marks for a novel, though in Goethe's defense, he may not have read that bit of writing advice. The rest of the long opening paragraph has a feeling of ranting to it, which hints at the narrator's mental state quite well, knowing what we know of young Werther and his sorrows, assuming readers are familiar with this story before they start reading it.

I know you will forgive me. Have not other attachments been specially appointed by fate to torment a head like mine? Poor Leonora! and yet I was not to blame. Was it my fault, that, whilst the peculiar charms of her sister afforded me an agreeable entertainment, a passion for me was engendered in her feeble heart? And yet am I wholly blameless? Did I not encourage her emotions? Did I not feel charmed at those truly genuine expressions of nature, which, though but little mirthful in reality, so often amused us? Did I not—but oh! what is man, that he dares so to accuse himself? 

You get the idea. Nervous breakdowns are usually accompanied by an influx of thoughts related only by the punctuation used. Though young Werther's sorrows have not yet begun, we can see he is ripe for grief with the next line:

My dear friend I promise you I will improve; I will no longer, as has ever been my habit, continue to ruminate on every petty vexation which fortune may dispense...

First thing said:

"Shall I help you, pretty lass?"

This comes a couple pages in, depending on the edition you are reading.

Overall, I'm fairly certain Goethe did not write the opening of this short novel with the purpose of providing a marketable hook to sell copies. Even when he wrote this, he was fairly well known with a previous work. The hook was in the byline. Nevertheless, there is great emotion in this opening and the first glimpse of a character that is not quite as stable as you and I like to think we are.

This is part of the series: the top 100 novels from Daniel S. Burt's book called Novel 100, the top 100 novels of all time. There is debate of course as to what should be on that list, but his opinions are as good as any. The Sorrows of Young Werther ranks as the 78th best.

Verdict: Pass (barely)

Sincerely,
Theodore Moracht

Friday, 19 September 2014

The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman

The letter had said to meet in a bookstore.

This is the opening line and opening paragraph of the novel. The next paragraph begins with weather, stating that it drizzling and cold but not cold enough for snow which means that it is not a night for a bookstore. I personally don't see the connection between bad weather and going to a bookstore. The paragraph continues with a character standing at a bus stop as the rain drums down. Doesn't sound like it's drizzling to me. I understand drizzle and drumming rain to be two different things, but that's just me. Perhaps I'm over-complicating things. Or perhaps this writer is. The next sentence in this paragraph contains a POV switch and a long sentence fragment. I will add it here for your critical judging pleasure.

Not one of your charming, quirky bookstores, with a ginger cat on the windowsill and a shelf of rare signed first editions and an eccentric, bewhiskered proprietor behind the counter.

I fail to find a verb in this line making it a phrase. Punctuation does not a sentence make.

The POV switches continue the next paragraph: Inside you could still hear the noise of cars...and I'm reminded of grade 6 homework I've checked in the past, hardly something a New York Times best-selling author should aspire to, or am I behind on the latest writing trends?

First thing said:

"Attention, Bookbumblers patrons!"

This opening feels like it should be the opening of a film rather than a book. It lacks conflict and lacks revealing character. It has an aura of suspense but only in that we know nothing about anything of the situation. As well, without conflict, there is no reason to care. I suppose since this is a series that there is something here that people who have read the series would find intense and suspenseful, but anyone picking this up without reading the other books, won't be interested or hooked by this opening.

Verdict: Fail

Sincerely,
Theodore Moracht

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella

Ok.

This is the beginning of chapter 1, and as there is nothing here to suggest plot, character, theme, setting, or pathetic fallacy, I think we can assume what the tone of the novel will be. Ok? In its favor, it is short -  and dare I say - pithy?

The next line:

Don't panic.

It is so important that it is worth repeating:

Don't panic.

With panic in italics. Next line:

It's only a VISA bill.

And so we come to the cusp of an inciting event with some conflict. The bill has come; the fun is done. Then the narrator assumes she knows (sorry, I'm assuming this is a female protagonist, call it my sixth sense tingling or perhaps the pink cover is misleading me?) that the bill will be 200 pounds, but then when tallying up purchases it comes to 950 pounds. There was the rug everyone loved,  the Jigsaw suit (whatever that is - I'm beginning to think this book wasn't written with me in mind, which really isn't fair.), contact lenses, hypoallergenic eyeliner,

My question: How can anyone overspend without noticing it?

However, as the narrator wonders what she bought and thinking maybe her credit card was stolen there is a somewhat suspenseful scene here, as we eventually learn what her bill is. The problem is that I can't help think she has brain damage, like amnesia or something; she can't seem to remember buying anything. If this is just the narrator being silly, then this opening is silly, but if this lady has some serious mental disorder, than this is an interesting hook, and I don't mean a disorder of simply being addicted to buying things. That's something everyone struggles with to some degree.

In this narrator's defense, she does ask:

I'm not stupid, am I?

A little self-deprecation goes a long way in revealing character. The question though, that we all need to ask ourselves is do we want to invest the three or four days it will take to read this, if the character really is as stupid as she sounds?

First thing said:

"Ok, Becky?"

I was right the narrator is female.

The title is nice and works well with the opening, though the first line is, like, totally, forgettable, regrettable and redundant. That opening sentence is an utter and epic fail, but as it's only slightly better than a grunt, we can ignore it or skip it and get to line four which is where conflict makes an appearance.

This is a pass for the scene of overspending which everyone can relate to at some point in their lives.

Verdict: Pass

Sincerely,
Rudy Globird

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The Guardians by Andrew Pyper

Memory Diary
Entry No. 1

We watched them come in.

To celebrate the one-year anniversary of this blog we thought I would review another book by the author who started it all off. That time round he got a resounding epic fail for how he opened his 'award-winning' novel.

The opening line from this effort reads like an exercise in pronounology. It could be about anything, absolutely anything in the universe. We don't learn who 'we' are, but we do learn that 'they' are police officers going into a house. The first is one fat officer (stereotype intended?), who shows up. Whatever is in the house is disturbing, as fat cop comes out of the house transformed into sweaty fat cop. Fat cop calls it in and soon more police show up, an ambulance and fire trucks, before the body bags start coming out. This prologue ends:

A gulp of french fry, onion ring and chicken finger that, to this day, is the taste of death.

We remember all this, though still not everything.

And some of the things we remember may not have happened at all.

Huh? But that's it. We never learn what happened, or what this is about. Just bodies that the narrators may have remembered or may not have remembered because it may or may not have happened. It sounds like a writer just wrote a first draft of the opening of a story, and is still not sure what is going to happen next. However, the subtitle to this masked prologue explains more than the text. Whoever this 'we' pronoun is, they have memory problems, so one may reasonably infer. So this would have to be the opening hook, which serves to entice readers into the story, but may also warn them that there might be some ambiguity for a bit.

Plus, how does a gulp of food taste like death, as opposed to the food itself? Remove the propositional phrase of...etc., and we have this: A gulp is the taste of death.

Chapter 1:

The call comes in the middle of the night, as the worst sort do.

So this line works two opening cliches: the waking up or bed setting cliche and the phone call cliche.

First thing said:

"I don't even know what time it is."

This line sounds less awkward if that sentence and the next hadn't been separated with punctuation: "But it's late, isn't it?"

Then the voice is described, which is notable enough to add here:

A familiar voice, faintly slurred, helium-pitched between laughter and sobs.

This is another example of the descriptive style of this writer: It seems everything can be described as a series of contradictions co-existing within the being of each thing out there. Take the opening of the Demonologist:

Last night I had the dream again. Except it was not a dream.

Later when describing Ben, a guy who hung himself which is what the phone call is about, the narrator, Trev, talks about how Ben and he might ...have been separated by an ocean, or an even greater barrier, as impossible to cross as the chasm between planets, as death.

Then the next paragraph begins:

Despite this, we were still close. There was a love between us too. A sexless, stillborn love, yet just as fierce as the other kinds.

Yeah, right. Why can I not believe that or imagine that after the hyperbolic chasm description that is like as big as life and death? Hyperbolic chasm description might just be referring to distance, but I can't help but think it has more to do with personalities or the natures of the characters. There are certainly plenty of hints to suggest this is the case. We learn that what connects these two characters is a secret - a secret unknown even to Ben and Trev!

There are many contrary concepts in this writing that makes one wonder why one is even bothering to read. I suppose one could just ignore them if one reads fast enough or multitasks, you know, by thinking about what to have for dinner while reading.

Still the prologue and what we can infer from it and the fact that dialogue is used and a scene unfolds early on in chapter 1 gets this the 'meh' pass.

Verdict: Pass (barely)

Sincerely,
Rudy Globird

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Savage Girl by Jean Zimmerman

Prologue
Manhattan. May 19, 1876

I wait for the police in the study overlooking Gramercy Park, the body prone on the floor a few feet away.

A problem and a character in the opening line cannot fail to make one read on, which is what each line in a story should do: make readers want to read the next one, so onto the next line:

Outside, rain has cooled the green spring evening.

Unfortunately, this human weakness of succumbing to cliche rears its ugly head in this novel as it does in millions of others. The next paragraph talks about and describes the room this pronoun is in, which is not what the reader wants. The reader wants to know about the body, not the real estate agent's tour of the place. I understand that authors do this to build suspense, done by not revealing what the reader wants revealed right away, but I've always said that that is a rather hackneyed way of creating suspense, sort of suspense by procrastination. A little is fine and may be quite effective; a lot is annoying and feels like wasting readers' time by toying with them. In this case, it is thankfully short and in the next paragraph we return to the body and the interesting circumstances surrounding it, which are: Either 'she' killed 'him' or the narrator killed him but has no memory of it. The use of pronouns bugs me, I can infer more about the dead person than the living in this opening.

While still on the first page the narrator explains that whether it was 'she' who killed him or 'I' who killed him, the narrator is going to take the blame and therefore must wait in the room while contemplating what to do to the body until he/she/it is caught red-handed. The circumstances are unusual enough to pull readers in and it's nice that the hook is so soon. However....this is the prologue, an attachment to the beginning of a story. Chapter 1, where a story is officially supposed to begin rarely continues where a prologue left off, if it did, then the prologue would be chapter 1 and chapter 1 would be chapter 2.

Chapter 1:

In June of 1875, we made our way down Virginia City's "A" Street, proceeding south from the center of town towards the mountains.

As was expected the opening of chapter 1 does not continue  the action of the prologue but instead goes back in time to tell the story that leads to the prologue which one can assume will be a climactic moment in the novel later on, or thereabouts. On top of that, we have the walking cliche here, characters travelling to the beginning of the story and conflict. It goes on to explain who the people are that are walking and I lose interest. I'm not the only one; the library copy I have has the page folded after the prologue. Someone else stopped after reading the prologue, thinking that chapter 1 was for another day. Too bad, I really liked that prologue, despite the split infinitive.

First thing said:

"Where is it?"

Verdict: Pass (barely)

A deeply anticlimatic chapter 1 and a couple of cliches reduces the rating of this opening.

Sincerely,
Theodore Moracht

Monday, 15 September 2014

Candide by Voltaire

HOW CANDIDE WAS BROUGHT UP IN A MAGNIFICENT CASTLE, AND HOW HE WAS EXPELLED THENCE.

In a castle of Westphalia, belonging to the Baron of Thunder-ten-Tronckh, lived a youth, whom nature had endowed with the most gentle manners. 

The names are a little awkward, but I think they help to establish the tone of the novel. In any case, they are no weirder or more frightening than many of the names in the Harry Potter series. The line itself introduces characters but declines to introduce conflict so it fails by itself.

The rest of the first paragraph:

His countenance was a true picture of his soul. He combined a true judgment with simplicity of spirit, which was the reason, I apprehend, of his being called Candide. The old servants of the family suspected him to have been the son of the Baron's sister, by a good, honest gentleman of the neighborhood, whom that young lady would never marry because he had been able to prove only seventy-one quarterings, the rest of his genealogical tree having been lost through the injuries of time.

This is only mildly funny, in that Candide's parents couldn't marry because they could not prove the nobility back to the times of Christ. But the tone is by now established, and tone is Voltaire's strength.

First thing said:

"It is demonstrable," said he, "that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for all being created for an end, all is necessarily for the best end." 

With this dialogue we get a glimpse of what Voltaire is known for: witty complex concepts, as is seen with the next sentence:

"Observe, that the nose has been formed to bear spectacles—thus we have spectacles. Legs are visibly designed for stockings—and we have stockings."

The opening line is of the preamble variety but then again that was the style back then. However, the narrative quickly shifts into Voltaire's style that borders on a sort of realism based on absurdism, which will pull in many a reader.

This is part of the series: the top 100 novels from Daniel S. Burt's book called Novel 100, the top 100 novels of all time. There is debate of course as to what should be on that list, but his opinions are as good as any. Candide is graded as the 79th best.


Verdict: Pass (barely)

Sincerely,
Theodore Moracht

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Native Son by Richard Wright

Brrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiinng!

Onomatopoeia doesn't pull one in the way it used to when we used to read Dr. Seuss as kids. This might not be an accurate representation of the opening line, as I couldn't be bothered to count how many i's there are in this word.

An alarm clock clanged in the dark and silent room. A bed spring creaked.

So we have the waking up or bed setting cliche. In all fairness this might not yet have been overdone by the 1940's, but it still betrays a lack of creativity. The short sentences help speed the pace which is existential, er, I mean, essential to getting a hook into a reader's brain.

First thing said:

"Bigger shut that thing off."

This comes while still on the first page. Dialogue early is nice as it means that the characters are going to be doing most of the talking and showing and telling and not the author - so to speak. It's a plus that the story begins with a scene. But there is little conflict in the first couple pages to pull the average reader in. However, characters interacting should hold most people's attention until the hook comes.

I hope.

This is part of the series: the top 100 novels from Daniel S. Burt's book called Novel 100, the top 100 novels of all time. There is debate of course as to what should be on that list, but his opinions are as good as any. Native Son ranks as the 80th best.

Verdict: Fail

Sincerely,
Theodore Moracht

Friday, 12 September 2014

Death of a Scholar by Susanna Gregory

Cambridge, Lammas Day (1 August) 1358

Oswald Stanmore knew he was dying.

There is not as much conflict here as people may think. I mean, we all die. If the line was something like: He knew he would die, then that would raise more questions. However, in this first paragraph of this prologue, we learn that Oswald has some secrets and has been a naughty boy and needs to destroy any evidence of his his wrongdoings before he begins the arduous task of concentrating on his immortal soul. So we do get a hook in the first paragraph, which is not to say that the opening line fails, it's a great leading line.

Chapter 1

It was an inauspicious start for a new College.

This line, however, has a whiff of preamble to it. A big stink of preamble, actually, giving the opening line a watered-down vague character to it. The next line is where the story starts and would have made a much more powerful opening line, as it has character and conflict:

Geoffrey de Elvesmere of Winwick Hall lay dead in the latrine, sprawled inelegantly with his clothes in disarray around him.

I like the euphemistic phrase: sprawled inelegantly. Quickly we are presented with a body and a problem in the first paragraph of chapter 1. We learn something about the victim and the detective Matthew Bartholomew all in the first paragraph. Geoffrey would have been horrified at the spectacle he was providing for gawping onlookers. Readers are no different then those onlookers and out of curiosity read on.

First thing said:

"Marsh fever."

This comes in the prologue and moves the plot forward a little, which makes for effective dialogue in an opening. In this case, it reveals what is supposed to be ailing Oswald. He knows differently, though.

Verdict: Pass (Definitely)

For those who love mysteries there is enough mystery in the opening to hook. For those who love historical, there is enough history in the opening to hook. I like the writing style, but that's no surprise as it's coming from a UKer. So this gets a 3.5 stars out of 5.

Sincerely,
Theodore Moracht

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Heroes Are My Weakness by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Annie didn't usually talk to her suitcase, but she wasn't exactly herself these days.

This line works by itself. It's unusual enough to whet curiosity. We learn in the rest of the paragraph Annie is in a car driving in bad weather and tells her suitcase:

"It's only a little snow."

This is the first thing said, meaning a character is talking to a suitcase and I suspect this isn't even a children's story, even though the suitcase seemingly talks back: You know I hate the cold. Adding: How could you bring me to this awful place?

I'm instantly teleported to the Twilight Zone or to a well-written King novel. The next paragraph of narrative text answers and is all of one line:

Because Annie had run out of options. 

I sit and ponder this opening. Yes, it has the car opening cliche and the weather opening cliche, but what makes my mind go blank is the fact that conflict and context are introduced by having a woman talk to her suitcase. Is this a creative way of revealing back story and is pure genius or simply ridiculous? I can see the opening scene of the movie version, though I see it as a cartoon.

Then there is more weather, It's super-duper cold and the suitcase continues to argue with Annie, suggesting she go to Miami instead, when it hits me: This lady is stoned! What other explanation can there be for a talking suitcase? Apparently many, and on page 2 the reader learns that there is another explanation. Annie's packed the suitcases with puppets that are talking to her (in her head) so they can reveal back story for us. So in point of fact she is not really talking to her suitcases in the opening line, making it misleading and somewhat of a false hook.

Then enter other puppet voices and a discussion between the suitcases and Annie ensues. It's actually kind of fascinating, Just like watching The Room is fascinating.

Here is a bit of the conversation between the suitcases:

You know, Annie had no choice but to come here.
Because she's a big failure.
Very unkind...Even if it is true.

Ouch. Very demanding and unsympathetic puppets. Nevertheless, this opening manages to reveal that Annie has issues and is not really as normal as the rest of us, which is the type of character people like to read about. Who wants to read about boring old you and me anyway?

Then a man on a horse in the blizzard cuts in front of her car on the snowy road. Annie thinks at first she's imagining things; the reader starts to wonder how insane this character is and not if she is. Meanwhile, the voices in her head - aka, the puppets - continue to harass her, which predictably begins to wear thin after a while. I don't think I can read much more of this and fear this will continue throughout the book. Annie comes off as psychotic, which translates as annoying in my book.

Still, the abusive self-centered puppets/suitcases should keep people reading for a few pages, at least.

Verdict: Pass (barely)

Sincerely,
Rudy Globird

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Killer by Jonathan Kellerman

"I'm not going to shoot you, Dr. Delaware."

It's been said many times that beginning with dialogue is not a very good idea. I tend to agree, unless what being said introduces conflict and character. This opening line does both and so therefore works. What follows is a little bit of text that has the primary function of establishing tone in which the narrator wonders what the proper response is to such a statement. It's not really funny, but it's not really not funny either.

Then we get some context, while still on page 1 about who these characters are and why they are in this situation. There's a lot of beating around the bushing with sentences explaining what is not the cause of this scene, but as the hook is established in the opening line, most people, who like this genre will read on.

Unfortunately, nothing bad is going to happen and although there is the promise of conflict, it is a false alarm, as the opening line suggested all along.

As well, the title is a fail, I mean, come on, the book is a crime novel with a murder so there has to be a killer. This is definitely not a killer title and is about as interesting as a Salinger-approved book cover design.

Verdict: Pass (barely)

Sincerely,
Rudy Globird

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Shame and the Captives by Thomas Keneally

Autumn 1946
Japan, unspecified prefecture

When they were alone, she said to Aoki, "You were surrounded by those black savages...All that time you had in the jungle..."

I will take all this as the opening line of an unidentified prologue even though it is two lines fused together with a gluttony of ellipses. This line manages to introduce a situation though without a clear conflict in mind, but certainly presents possibilities for a hook.

In the next paragraph we learn that she is asking him if he succumbed to the jungle women, one presumes during WWII, and he answers that he was a soldier, implying that he did not. At this point I sense a massive flashback in which he tells his story of the war. He does, but the great thing is that the story he tells his wife is a lie. The reader is told that he's hiding something and this secret is a hook.

Part 1:

Spring 1943

On an unexpectedly warm day in the second October since her husband's capture, twenty-three-year-old Mrs Alice Herman saw - from the veranda where she sat sewing buttons on one of her father-in-law's shirts -  an army truck pull up in the middle of the rutted clay and gravel road outside the Hermans' place, three miles west of Gawell.

That was very annoying to type out. Reading it is more fun, but when one is forced to type it out, it becomes clear how much of this sentence is unnecessary. I was itching to truncate or delete more than the standard 10%. Short opening lines with character and conflict are the way to go. This line seems to be more interested in creating an idyllic postcard image, that's designed to warn the reader that this story is going to be romantic and epic, like how a TV miniseries would start.

This is what it is really about:

In the second October since her husband's capture, Mrs Alice Herman saw an army truck pull up outside.

Who cares what the temperature is? Who cares that she is sewing? Who cares that the bloody road is of rutted clay. Who cares that she lives three miles west of God knows where? Maybe there will be a reason to care later, but when it's necessary to know later, that is when the writer tells the reader, not overloading the reader with a descriptive dump in the first line. Too many words in the opening line, like weather reports, adjectives, and GPS dumps, etc., have the tendency to lead a reader away from the hook rather than towards it.

Though brief, quite honestly, the weather insertion is annoying. It seems every second book I pick up nowadays begins with weather. There is only so much weather readers can handle before they start to OD on it. I'm at the point now where I have no sympathy and no respect for any writer who begins with weather - the most rampant cliched opening on the market today, so if writers can't be more creative, I feel justified in throwing insolence and ridicule their way while reviewing such openings.

In any case, this line does present context which establishes some conflict into the bargain. Army men coming to a woman whose husband is a POW is probably not a good thing. Is it enough to hook? It does raise some questions, and I must admit I am mildly curious as to what is or will be Mr. Herman's fate, even though I can't say I yet care. I'm more interested in the situation than in the characters.  I care more about the characters in the prologue, but that is a prologue: different people in a different place in a different time. So whatever hook there was in the prologue is wasted on chapter 1.

For reasons mentioned above, I'm so tempted to give this 2.5 stars - the 50/50 meh rating, but there are some questions raised that induce curiosity and the writing isn't bad, so I'll be kind and give this opening a solid 3 stars.

Verdict: Pass

Sincerely,
Theodore Moracht