Sunday, 31 August 2014

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.

At least the writer made an effort to begin her book with a pithy sentence that establishes mood. Next:

For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.

Philosophy will hook some, but really this bit of text is not really telling me anything I don't already know, it's just packaging it nice and neat with an analogy.

Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.

Then an introduction of a character with conflict.

So the beginning of this was a woman and she had come back from burying the dead. Not the dead of sick and ailing with friends at the pillow and the feet. She had come back from the sodden and the bloated; the sudden dead, their eyes flung wide open in judgment.

The people all saw her come because it was sundown. The sun was gone, but he had left his footprints in the sky. It was the time for sitting on porches beside the road. It was the time to hear things and talk. These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human. They became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths. They sat in judgment.

Seeing the woman as she was made them remember the envy they had stored up from other times. So they chewed up the back parts of their minds and swallowed with relish. They made burning statements with questions, and killing tools out of laughs. It was mass cruelty. A mood come alive. Words walking without masters; walking altogether like harmony in a song.

First thing said:

“What she doin’ coming back here in dem overhalls?

This comes earlier on, on page 1-2. So this is nice, that dialogue comes so soon. Let the characters tell their story through their own words and deeds,  and as soon as possible always helps to hook a reader. Unfortunately there is a lot of dialect which isn't much fun to read. But it would make the audio book more entertaining.

Verdict: Pass

I'll give this opening a pass for the title and the simplicity of the text in the opening pages, despite the preamble, which is not long. As well, there is some conflict kicking around here.

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. Their Eyes Were Watching God ranks as the 83rd greatest novel of all time.

Theodore Moracht

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Waverley by Sir Walter Scott

The title of this work has not been chosen without the grave and solid deliberation which matters of importance demand from the prudent. 

What this is really saying is that this is going to be a long book, so you better have lots of extra time reading about things that don't really have anything to do with the story that I will or will not tell all in good time. So begins chapter 1 entitled: Introductory. But it's really more like a preface.

Chapter 2:

It is, then, sixty years since Edward Waverley, the hero of the following pages, took leave of his family, to join the regiment of dragoons in which he had lately obtained a commission. 

So this is where the story starts. We have a character and a change of circumstances that may or may not be for the worse. We may assume there will be lots of conflict with Waverley joining a regiment. What follows are thick paragraphs of back story and history and lots of telling that makes Madame Bovary look like a children's picture book.

First thing said:

"'Woe, woe, for Scotland, not a whit for me!'

This comes in chapter 4 after pages and pages of dense narrative text. It sounds campy to today's ear. I blame Ed Wood and Monty Python for my inability to appreciate this.

Verdict: Fail

I suspect this was written in a time when people didn't need to be coerced into reading something by being hooked.

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. Waverley comes in at the 84th greatest novel of all time.

Theodore Moracht

Friday, 29 August 2014

Snow Country by Kawabata Yasunari

The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. 

A dramatic beginning for the birth of the title. A visual image of beginning that would be suited for a film opening. English teachers will like this line though, as if the long tunnel is a metaphor for something worth spending hours discussing in class. The next line is a weather report:

The earth lay white under the night sky. The train pulled up at a signal stop.

A scene quickly unfolds that feels like it's been cut out of life, raw:

A girl who had been sitting on the other side of the car came over and opened the window in front of Shimamura. The snowy cold poured in. Leaning far out the window, the girl called to the station master as though he were a great distance away.

The station master walked slowly over the snow, a lantern in his hand. His face was buried to the nose in a muffler, and the flaps of his cap were turned down over his ears.

It’s that cold, is it, thought Shimamura. Low, barracklike buildings that might have been railway dormitories were scattered here and there up the frozen slope of the mountain. The white of the snow fell away into the darkness some distance before it reached them.

I like the sparse prose and minimal descriptive style. This minimalism helps to establish tone and mood. The scene pulls one in, but only up to a point; there needs to be conflict to hold interest more than a page or two. Then we get some dialogue, still on page 1:

“How are you?” the girl called out. “It’s Yoko.”
“Yoko, is it. On your way back? It’s gotten cold again.”
“I understand my brother has come to work here. Thank you for all you’ve done.”

“It will be lonely, though. This is no place for a young boy.”

If all we have to go on is the good writing then this will hook, but I like my openings to have character and conflict and this opening dilly-dally's around too much for my liking.

Verdict: Fail

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. Snow Country is considered the 85th greatest novel of all time.

Theodore Moracht

Thursday, 28 August 2014

1984 by George Orwell

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

I've already this novel numerous times, so to review this we have to break our rule of not having read the book before reviewing it. It's doubly hard because this is one of my favorite novels and my opinion of the hook will be biased.

But let's try to look at this as if we have no idea what this book is about, as if it were new and no one had heard anything about it.  Right out of the gate, the title is misleading. Of course we know this was published in 1949 so 1984 was the future then and up until 1984 people would have had an inkling that this was some kind of futuristic book, with some fantasy, perhaps a cautionary tale - and they would have figured that out just from the title. Now anyone who picks this up might think it's an historical novel, assuming they ignore the blurb. The point being the title was destined to lose it's effectiveness at some point in time. Even if it was called 2084 or 2184, time is ticking. Let's say I wrote a novel called 1972. What would be your conclusion as to its premise? Wrong! It's about flesh-eating aliens who process humans into cosmic coke in a parallel universe not unlike Berlin in the 1920's. Get it? 1927 backwards, so there! The lesson here? None really, or maybe choose a title that will remain effective - forever.

Now, to the first line.

Beginning with setting is not a really good idea, unless you begin like 1984. Standard setting is usually boring, but setting that is weird or makes you ask, "what the--?" hooks. The line is striking and immediately reveals  that something is not right about the world of this novel. It is vital to reveal this early in a dystopian novel. The next sentence we meet the protagonist dealing with bad weather as a little more dismal setting is revealed.

Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him. 

Then the next paragraph:

The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a coloured poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a metre wide: the face of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features. Winston made for the stairs. It was no use trying the lift. Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and at present the electric current was cut off during daylight hours. It was part of the economy drive in preparation for Hate Week. 

More tantalizing tidbits of the dystopian setting are revealed with the introduction of Hate Week.

First thing said:

'Oh, comrade,' she began in a dreary, whining sort of voice, 'I thought I heard you come in.'

Verdict: Pass

Overall, there are better opening lines than this, despite its fame. It is the fact it focuses on setting rather than character and conflict in a scene that lowers the rating. However, in a dystopian novel beginning with setting is acceptable, as the setting is very much an antagonizing force. As well, it establishes the dismal mood that is carried throughout the novel. In any case, the opening couple pages are well done and pull readers in right away.

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. 1984 is the 86th greatest novel of all time.

Theodore Moracht

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni

That branch of the Lake of Como, which turns toward the south between two unbroken chains of mountains, presenting to the eye a succession of bays and gulfs, formed by their jutting and retiring ridges, suddenly contracts itself between a headland to the right and an extended sloping bank on the left, and assumes the flow and appearance of a river. 

What is this - a novel or a geological study? The next sentence:

The bridge by which the two shores are here united, appears to render the transformation more apparent, and marks the point at which the lake ceases, and the Adda recommences, to resume, however, the name of Lake where the again receding banks allow the water to expand itself anew into bays and gulfs. 

Obviously people had more time on their hands when this was first published than people have these days. This, however, should illustrate why opening with landscape and setting does not hook. It's as if the author wished he was a painter instead of a writer, and fails at both. Telling a story requires a different set of tools than those needed for painting a picture and no matter how wonderful one paints that picture with words, it will obviously lack in some shape or form. Of course a writer can paint a picture in the reader's mind, but I think it needs to be simple in order to no hinder the imagination.

The rest of the first long paragraph is continues describing the geology of the novel's setting.

With paragraph 2 we are introduced to a character:

Towards evening, on the 7th day of November, 1628, Don Abbondio, curate of one of the villages before alluded to (but of the name of which, nor of the house and lineage of its curate, we are not informed), was returning slowly towards his home, by one of these pathways. 

What follows is a lot of back story, and I mean a lot with a few fourth-wall breaks.

First thing said:

"Signor Curate."

I'm sure Goethe would roll over in his grave with my verdict of this opening if he cared what I thought, which I'm sure he doesn't. He said this was the greatest novel of his time, but that was a time when people had the time to waste and the brain to appreciate the nuances of storytelling and of life it portrays. But people today? We. Have. More. Important. Things. To. Do.

Verdict: Fail

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 Betrothed is the 87th greatest novel of all time.

Theodore Moracht

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper

It was a feature peculiar to the colonial wars of North America, that the toils and dangers of the wilderness were to be encountered before the adverse hosts could meet. 

Preamble and exposition begin this novel. At the time it was written, people may have had less access to information than we do today, so perhaps an expository introduction was necessary. But it feels like the novel is beginning with an encyclopedic footnote. If you don't believe me, read the rest of the first paragraph and see if your eyes don't start to glaze over and your brain start to atrophy.

A wide and apparently an impervious boundary of forests severed the possessions of the hostile provinces of France and England. The hardy colonist, and the trained European who fought at his side, frequently expended months in struggling against the rapids of the streams, or in effecting the rugged passes of the mountains, in quest of an opportunity to exhibit their courage in a more martial conflict. But, emulating the patience and self-denial of the practiced native warriors, they learned to overcome every difficulty; and it would seem that, in time, there was no recess of the woods so dark, nor any secret place so lovely, that it might claim exemption from the inroads of those who had pledged their blood to satiate their vengeance, or to uphold the cold and selfish policy of the distant monarchs of Europe.

A characteristic of the writing style in those days is long-winded sentences that would need some serious weeding to appeal to today's dumbed down taste. After all, people were smarter back then. Nowadays, people enjoying reading a series of sentence fragments and one word paragraphs.

First thing said:

"Are such specters frequent in the woods, Heyward, or is this sight an especial entertainment ordered on our behalf?"

This dialogue only comes in chapter 2 which further suggests that chapter 1 is pure telling and informing. However, it does move the plot forward and asks for some pertinent information.

Verdict: Fail

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 of the Mohicans figures in as the 88th greatest novel of all time.

Theodore Moracht

Monday, 25 August 2014

Fear Nothing by Lisa Gardner


Rockabye, baby, on a treetop....

This counts as the first sentence or sentence fragment of the book. To some it might seem creepy and acceptable as an opening, perhaps establishing tone or mood. Not me, though. It's just a nursery rhyme I've heard a million times or thereabouts.

The next sentence shows promise, though how it relates to the opening line is a mystery, and therefore raises a question, but not the kind of question that hooks, not a story question, but a what-is-this-author-doing question. It's that kind of question that evaporates a hook.

The body was gone, but not the smell.

A crime scene is revealed, hence a crime is introduced. Unfortunately, it's broken up with more of that annoying nursery rhyme, that makes me roll my eyes and think of old-school 1980's phlegm horror.

Chapter 1:

My older sister discovered my condition when I was three years old.

Preamble that does nothing but promises back story. Pure exposition. The next line is the hook:

Our foster mother walked in on her wielding the scissors, while I stood there, bare arms obediently held out, blood dripping from my wrists onto the olive-green shag carpet.

Then the first thing said:

"Check it out, she doesn't even care."

Dialogue that reveals character and moves plot forward is good writing. Even though this beginning is technically a flashback and not a part of a forward narrative, its gruesomeness and the information provided is of the need-to-know variety. We learn that the narrator does not feel physical pain. Such unusual characters usually make for pleasant reading.

There are questions raised in this opening and the fact it is cliche free (no weather, guns, cars, beds, dreams, etc,)  makes this opening hookable.

Verdict: Pass

Theodore Moracht

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Cold Granite by Stuart MacBride

Dead things had always been special to him.

This hooks. Even though there is a pronoun rather than a name, title, or station, we learn a lot about Mr. Pronoun. Too bad the next sentence is a fragment:

Their delicate coldness. The feel of the skin. The ripe, sweet smell as they decayed. As they returned to God.

Someone needs to a grade six Language Arts refresher. I know what this author is doing though. It's a common tactic to use syntax to heighten tension, but it suggests the ideas need some support with suspenseful syntax, Gothic grammar, or...possessed. Punctuation. When I read so many fragments like this it feels melodramatic and overwritten. Don't get me wrong, I like a fragment just as much as the next guy, but a barge of fragments makes me giggle. That's write, syntax does make a difference and can ruin the intended effect a writer was hoping for. Best advice, don't write like you are a teenager sending a WTF text message to friends.

The next five paragraphs:

The thing in his hands hadn't been dead for long.
Just a few hours ago it had been full of life.
It was happy.
It was dirty, and flawed and filthy...
But now it was pure.

These paragraph fragments are overwritten. It was dead -  but it used to be alive. It was dirty and filthy - synonyms in the same sentence waste time and there are way to many pronouns. All we can say for sure is that it is about it. Chapter 1 is short and fits on the first page. Chapter 2 starts with weather, American style:

It was pissing down outside.

A little awkward that to say that it is raining down outside. In my part of the world, one can say it is pouring down rain outside. What is more awkward, however, is how the tone does a 180 from chapters 1 to 2.

First thing said:

"Has death been declared?"

A rather peculiar thing to say, which is to say that it arouses my curiosity.

Verdict: Pass

The opening line hooks, despite the melodramatic sentence structure, but this won't phase most people from being hooked, if YouTube comments are anything to go by. So even though how the story is told isn't very good, that doesn't matter if what the story is hooks. Well, it should matter to writers, but obviously it doesn't as long as someone is making money.

Rudy Globird

Friday, 22 August 2014

Where the Air is Sweet by Tasneem Jamal

Apollo Hotel, Kampala
August 1974

The swimming pool is circular, with a platform on one side that juts into the water.

Hooked yet? Didn't think so. With a title like Where the Air is Sweet we know that this is artsy-fartsy. The Artsy-Fartsy connoisseur will adore this opening. Circular swimming pool, you say? Could this be a metaphor for life, an expression of the futile yet malignant obsession of the human spirit to overthrow the cancerous mediocrity that threatens growth and happiness, despite there always being a way...out: A platform. It juts. ...into the water...

I apologize, I'm being facetious. I blame the artsy-fartsy title. My brain reacts violently to them; you know, ones that begin with an ellipsis..., or begin with a preposition or has a pronoun like: A River Runs through IT or a title that begins with 'And'. Then there are the ones that begin with where, when or how. Not that I have anything against artsy-fartsy - I have the prerequisite brain capacity and/or human compassion to appreciate them - it's just that these books tend to be didactic and long-winded with vocabulary that's been excavated from the depths of the armpits of some dictionary, bursting with imagery that tries to reprogram (or scramble) my brain, by making something as simple as the sun look like the last vestibule of hope in the eye of a dying impediment. Moreover, the pacing is soooooooo slowwwww.

The rest of the paragraph mentions a past event littered with sentence fragments, a feature of artsy fartsy.

A concrete peninsula.
In Swahili.
In English.
In Luganda.

If you like you're sentences thus...
This book.

Paragraph 2 begins with description, a  fashion report before describing a scene of people swimming in the pool. Hooked yet? Yes? No? Good for you.

Paragraph 3 is the artsy-fartsy weather report and I imagine a beatnik Stewie reading this:

A cloud obscures the sun and everything is grey. Dull. Diminished. As though, on a cruel whim, God lifted his hand and smeared the earth with ash.

Snap fingers. Snap fingers.

The fact that it's in present tense doesn't help.

First thing said:


Verdict: Fail

In general, artsy-fartsy books aren't written with hooking in mind, so it isn't fair to review them on this blog. I do it though because it's fun. I sometimes wonder if someone's playing a joke on the publishing industry and that Monty Python fanatics are secretly writing these books while spanking each other with fish.

Rudy Globird

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Killer Ambition by Marcia Clark

Rocky mountain peaks glowed lonely and austere under the nearly full moon.

So this is what happens when people decide to quit their day jobs to be a writer. Mountains start defying the laws of nature and physics and begin glowing or so it is suggested in this idyllic fade in. What else is wrong with this sentence? Putting adjectives after the noun they modify leads to confusion. There should be commas offsetting the appositive, lonely and austere. It would sound better like this:

The lonely and austere Rocky mountain peaks glowed under a nearly full moon.

Nearly? Why use an adverb to describe the moon as nearly full? It's vague. Nearly means what - 98% full or 80% full or...etc.

The prologue continues with two people on a trail on a mountain and one is forced to dig. We don't know why but we can imagine. Then the prologue shifts to three days earlier at a bar before fast forwarding to now. The plot hinges on characters acting stupid and being melodramatic as they struggle with whether to do the smart thing everyone does in real life or whether they should be stupid like people in the movies and novels because that is the only way to make a story interesting. I guess having stupid characters make the writer's job all that easier, and everyone loves reading about stupid people, right? I suppose this technique has a basis in literary history, since the old fairy tales are cautionary tales warning people that if they act stupid, they will be eaten by the wolf or witch. However, I doubt that is this author's intent - to insert a moral in the prologue.

Chapter 1:

"I'm guessing by your expression that dinner went pretty well after all," Bailey said.

Then we get the Hardy Boys line introducing Baily so we understand who this is, even though we have no idea who she's talking to or about what, besides the fact, that someone at some point before this opening ate something. That's one obvious disadvantage to opening with dialogue.

First thing said:


This lady can write about as well as she can prosecute murderers. But in America today, even people who suck at what they do have the right to unbelievable success. I imagine it's in the constitution.

Verdict: Fail

Rudy Globird

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Late in the afternoon of a chilly day in February, two gentlemen were sitting alone over their wine, in a well-furnished dining parlor, in the town of P——, in Kentucky.

It's been suggested that evaluating old novels by today's standards may not be fair. But if that's the case than how should they be judged? Or should we not have opinions about literature that was written before our time? Personally, I think that a story is a story is a story and that it matters not when it was written. A story is interesting only because of its characters and conflict. Of course there are other necessary things, but in the beginning of a story this is important. Setting is not a hookable device, unless of course one is reading the beginning of Sharknado

So with novels this old I try to focus on the opening only from the point of conflict and character. I ignore the obvious things that sound arcane, like style: sentence structure and word choice. In this case the peculiar habit of censoring out names of places and people.

This opening line offers nothing that might hook someone. It employs the weather cliche and drinking cliche and little else. The only thing it lacks, not making it pure exposition, is the once upon time phrase.

The next line:

There were no servants present, and the gentlemen, with chairs closely approaching, seemed to be discussing some subject with great earnestness.

The word "seem" is not a good word to use if one wishes to be concise. In this case we are told that two men are talking about something that may or may not be worth reading about. Why say this if it is not important and why say this if it is important? Why not begin right away with what they are talking about about?

Then the next paragraph:

For convenience sake, we have said, hitherto, two gentlemen. One of the parties, however, when critically examined, did not seem, strictly speaking, to come under the species. 

Ill-defined preamble does not create suspense. However, this line does indicate a hook in that one of these men is not strictly speaking a gentlemen. Or am I trying too hard to make this opening sound better than it is? What follows is a description of a man:

He was a short, thick-set man, with coarse, commonplace features, and that swaggering air of pretension which marks a low man who is trying to elbow his way upward in the world. He was much over-dressed, in a gaudy vest of many colors, a blue neckerchief, bedropped gayly with yellow spots, and arranged with a flaunting tie, quite in keeping with the general air of the man. His hands, large and coarse, were plentifully bedecked with rings; and he wore a heavy gold watch-chain, with a bundle of seals of portentous size, and a great variety of colors, attached to it,—which, in the ardor of conversation, he was in the habit of flourishing and jingling with evident satisfaction. His conversation was in free and easy defiance of Murray's Grammar, and was garnished at convenient intervals with various profane expressions, which not even the desire to be graphic in our account shall induce us to transcribe.

Here we have a character who I think would interest most people and nudge them to read on.

First thing said:

"That is the way I should arrange the matter," said Mr. Shelby.

Verdict: Fail

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. Uncle Tom's Cabin figures in as the 89th greatest novel of all time.

Theodore Moracht

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash

Easter Quillby
Chapter 1

Wade disappeared on us when I was nine years old, and then he showed up out of nowhere the year I turned twelve.

This line possesses both character and conflict that raise questions. Why did this person disappear and why return? My first thought was that Wade was a child. That would have made it more interesting, but while commenting on this line and reading the next, I'm suspecting that Wade might be an adult.

By then I'd spent nearly three years listening to Mom blame him for everything from the lights getting turned off to me and Ruby not having new shoes to wear to school, and by the time he came back I'd already decided that he was the loser she'd always said he was.

Then we learn that Wade is a thief and takes the narrator and little sister away after the mother dies. By page 2 we learn that Wade is Daddy.

Of course this is back story but as it is filled with conflict and establishes tone and character to a degree, it is fun to read and the reader becomes quickly engrossed.

First thing said:

"That's your daddy right there."

Verdict: Pass 

Theodore Moracht

Monday, 18 August 2014

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker

Preface (of sorts)

"Somerset Police. What's your emergency?"

Two sentences here. This preface is super short and ends with news that shocked a town, that a girl has disappeared.

October 2008
(Thirty-three years after the disappearance)

My book was the talk of the town.

We learn that this narrator is a writer who enjoys Beatle-like success and is hounded in the streets of Manhattan. If it were only true. The realty is that most people wouldn't recognize a writer if the author's book fell from a five story building and brained them on the side of the head. Authors fade away before their work does - if they're lucky. Not many people know who wrote Peter Pan or what the guy looks like. Unless you're Pynchon, then everyone wants to know you and that one picture of his is as famous as Ronald McDonald's mug.

First thing said:

"Look, it's Goldman!"

The prologue is short as I've said. It's mostly about how awesome this writer and narrator is or was.

Chapter 1:

"The first chapter, Marcus, is essential."

It's given the number of 30 and the chapters seem to count down, but we all know that what is at the beginning is what comes first and gets the heading of chapter 1, regardless of what the author says to the contrary.

This opening is part of a couple lines that explore whether a writer can write a book and how to begin. It looks like a heading or cutaway scene. On the next page we get what looks like the beginning of what looks like chapter 1.

In early 2008, about a year and half after my first novel had made me the new darling of American letters, I was seized by a terrible case of writer's block -  a common affliction, I am told, for writers who have enjoyed sudden, meteoric success.

I discovered the solution to writer's block: Just take two of whatever Stephen King is taking, then not give a crap, and start typing whatever nonsense or otherwise that pops into your head. Or if you have the connections, do what Patterson and Cussler do: Have someone else right the book. [typo intended - or not?]

This opening goes on to explain the writer's descent into the hell of fearing the blank page. I can imagine a lot of reader's not enjoying this and just as many readers not really caring or understanding this particular type of Twilight Zone discomfort.

Verdict: Pass (barely)

This gets 2.5 stars, the meh pass, because on the plus side there is the disappearance of the girl and the writer's impotency, but it's soon repetitive and thus begins to tire as my attention starts to wander.

Theodore Moracht

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

In 1815, M. Charles-Francois-Bienvenu Myriel was Bishop of D—— He was an old man of about seventy-five years of age; he had occupied the see of D—— since 1806.

Very much a 'once upon a time' type beginning by easing the reader in idyllically with back story moving at a snail's pace. Next sentence and second paragraph:

Although this detail has no connection whatever with the real substance of what we are about to relate, it will not be superfluous, if merely for the sake of exactness in all points, to mention here the various rumors and remarks which had been in circulation about him from the very moment when he arrived in the diocese.

When an author comments on his opening line, you know this is going to be long; no wonder Les Miserable is a million pages long. So if you got a couple months to kill, this might be the book for you. Next sentence:

True or false, that which is said of men often occupies as important a place in their lives, and above all in their destinies, as that which they do. 

Then we get some lecturing. I don't like when author's lecture their readers, but starting so soon in a novel is ominous. Then a huge back story dump

First thing said:

"Who is this good man who is staring at me?"

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. Les Miserables comes in at the 90th greatest novel of all time.

Verdict: Fail

Theodore Moracht

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Critical Mass by Sara Paretsky

Vienna, 1913
And There Was Light


Headings and titles that begin with "...[A]nd" are funny as they are failed attempts to instigate some intellectual prowess. ...or so it seems. They fool the fool though, and don't hide the overpowering desire to add an ellipsis.

Now, to the opening sentence, or should I say opening grunt. One-word openings are always at great risk of being a fail in my estimation. The reason being there isn't much one can do with one word, and there isn't that much that can be expressed. How to express conflict with one word: No! Character: Bob. Tone: Awesome! Or: Totally. Setting: Rain. These one-word fails usually go undetected; the reader washes over them as if it is a mere stain on the page. On the plus side, these grunts are so short, they don't really count as an idea that can challenge and hook. Most people don't notice them because they don't care about them, which makes one wonder why an author would begin with one. The next line:

The syllable is a soft cry of ecstasy.

What the opening of this prologue is about is a child amazed at seeing colors on the floor.

First thing (words) actually said:

"Martina, your manners."

This is whispered harshly.

Chapter 1:

The sun scorched my back through my thin shirt.

Weather and fashion. Nothing to see here. Next line:

It was September, but out on the prairie, the heat still held a midsummer ferocity.

Weather and geography, and it stays that way with some added real estate for several paragraphs before I lose interest. Someone is inspecting an old and fallen down house. I would prefer to know why before the descriptions of the house and the yard and the shed and the fence and the windows and the heat and of a dog long dead.

Verdict: Fail

Rudy Globird

Friday, 15 August 2014

Robert B. Parker's Cheap Shot by Ace Atkins

I had dressed for Chestnut Hill: a button-down tattersall shirt that Susan had bought me, crisp dress khakis, a navy blazer with gold buttons, and a pair of well-broken-in loafers worn without socks.

I like Mr. Atkins. I enjoy his sparse prose style and simple, yet vivid characterization. I also like Parker, though I've only read a couple of things by him; I'm much more familiar with Atkins's work. I find many, if not most, crime novels and thrillers have protagonists that are pretty much the same persona with different names, clothes and backgrounds. Atkins, however, manages to treat his lead characters a little differently, if you are able to pay close enough attention. He also doesn't waste much time pulling the reader into the plot.

This opening line, however, stinks. Who cares what this dude is wearing? Why is this essential to know at the beginning of a story before conflict? Why is this ever essential? Why should I care? Will the clothes make this guy stand out; will he be targeted by the anti-khakis establishment, hunted down stripped of his blazer and burned alive on a heap of his clothes?

The next line makes an attempt to make the opening line vital, but I ain't buying it:

The lack of socks implied a devil-may-care attitude understood by the wealthy.

The opening continues by explaining that the narrator is going to meet a client who is an NFL football player. The tone of a Spenser novel is established right away with some of that humor as early as page 2 and a mystery surfaces around the same time. Someone is following this NFL player and Spenser is hired to find out why.

First thing said:

"You can't discuss this case with anyone, Mr.Spenser."

On a side note, there seems to be a lot of this type of novel, or rather this type of marketing ploy these days. Attach a dead author's name to a title and have an established writer write a novel based on characters or setting created by said dead writer. It's professional money grabbing fan fiction at its best and further evidence that either publishers are running out of ideas and believe creativity is drying up, or readers don't want anything new.

The opening line is an epic fail, but the opening quickly transitions to a scene in which character and conflict take over. The title and byline hook don't hurt either, but that's a little like cheating with a hook.

Verdict: Pass (barely)

Theodore Moracht

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.

A little conflict, but not reason to care. The second sentence is much better:

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.

At least this book doesn't begin in a car or a character traveling towards a plot.

First thing said:

"Now, darling, here we are in New York and although I haven’t quite told you everything that I was thinking about when we crossed Missouri and especially at the point when we passed the Booneville reformatory which reminded me of my jail problem, it is absolutely necessary now to postpone all those leftover things concerning our personal lovethings and at once begin thinking of specific worklife plans . . ." 

This dialogue reveals some plot points and reveals a character who can't keep quiet. The first two sentences  work well together at introducing conflict and character that should pull most readers in.

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. On the Road comes in at the 91st greatest novel of all time.

Verdict: Pass

Theodore Moracht

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

The Killings at Badgers Drift by Caroline Graham

She had been walking in the woods just before teatime when she saw them. 

Pronouns walking and seeing pronouns. We must assume that this is not good because the alternative is to think that "them" means birds or something and that there is nothing really interesting happening here.

Walking very quietly although that had not been her intention. It was just that the spongy underlay of leaf mould and rotting vegetation muffled every footfall. The trees, tall and packed close together, also seemed to absorb sound. In one or two places the sun pierced through the closely entwined branches, sending dazzling shafts of hard white light into the darkness below.

We learn that someone is danger. The scene is tense but I skipped most of it. Someone in the woods, running from persons unknown for reasons unknown. A fairly roundabout way to announce that someone dies.

Chapter 1:

‘There’s something very wrong here and I expect you to do something about it. Isn’t that what the police are for?’

I generally like cozy mysteries, especially if they are set in the UK. I've watched this TV series on occasion and liked it, so I thought it would be interesting to check out the book that started it all. The line above is the opening line of chapter 1 and is also the first thing said. It's effective dialogue because it moves the plot forward. A concerned friend of the prologuie is going to the police to have them check the prologuie's death, that it wasn't an accident.

Sergeant Troy observed his breathing, a trick he had picked up from a colleague at Police Training College who was heavily into T’ai Ch’i and other faddy Eastern pursuits. The routine came in very handy when dealing with abusive motorists, boot-deploying adolescents and, as now, with barmy old ladies.

The character description above is fun.

Verdict: Pass

I'll give this three stars because of chapter 1, the scene, the mystery of a suspicious death, that we know is murder because of the prologue and the characters that are revealed right out of the gate.

I also like the title. Not sure why, I just like it.

Theodore Moracht

Sunday, 10 August 2014

The Lincoln Myth by Steve Berry

Washington, D.C.
September 10, 1861

Abraham Lincoln kept his temper under control, but the woman standing across from him was taxing his patience.

So begins a novel that I presume is taking advantage of the Lincoln craze that has been going on lately. Lincoln, in America, is always a topic of pride, but more so after the Vampire Hunter premise. Now, he's cool, too.

With this opening line we have Lincoln and a woman and what looks like a bad situation, so this has the potential to hook.

First thing said:

"The general did only what all decent people believe to be right."

The rest of the prologue suggests that there is a secret or mystery passed down from president to president, a plotting technique reminiscent of The Da Vinci Code.

Chapter 1:

Off the coast of Denmark
Wednesday, October 8
7:40 P.M.

One glance and Cotton Malone knew there was trouble.

In other words, he knew this was the beginning of a novel. Of course, the book begins in a different time and place than the prologue, so if the prologue hooked you, then it's pretty easy to get unhooked now and move on to the next book.

Verdict: Pass (barely)

Theodore Moracht

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Shadows of Death by Jeanne M. Dams

"How much do you know about archaeology?"

Beginning with dialogue comes with its risks. It had better be about something interesting or weird that will pull readers in without them needing to know who is talking to whom and why and under what circumstances. It is possible to do to great effect, but most dialogue openings I read fail to hook. This one is a fifty/fifty. As I'm mildly interested in archaeology (I like those Agatha Christie novels set in a desert with people digging up ancient garbage until someone's bumped off), but not everyone will be and so will be turned off by such an opening.

The next paragraph:

I looked up, startled.

I'm not sure why this question would startle the narrator, but if I imagine the character as being a dingbat, it starts to make sense.

I was deep in a new Alexander McGill Smith book, miles away in Edinburgh. Alan's question had come out of nowhere. "Um...archaeology?" I said brilliantly.

How does one say, "Um..." brilliantly? I assume this speaking brilliantly means speaking excellently as per dictionary definitions? Is there a non brilliantly way to say, "Um...archaeology?"

This question is asked to suggest that the characters go to a place called Orkney which apparently is an archaeologist's dream. They decide to go and as stated near the end of the first page, this is what sets the whole book in motion, which I could have guessed without being told. Here is the redundant line:

Thus began our part in events that were to change many lives.

Verdict: Fail

Despite my interest in archaeology there is no way there is a hook on the first page.

Theodore Moracht

Friday, 8 August 2014

Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

St. Petersburgh, Dec. 11th, 17— 

TO Mrs. Saville, England

You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings. 

This novel opens with a series of letters before finally getting around to telling a story with a narrative and first person point of view. Beginning in a epistolary fashion and then switching gears to first person is awkward. As well, I'm not rejoicing that there is no conflict at the beginning of the novel. I want a disaster and the flourishing of evil forebodings. This begins like someone's boring email for which its only purpose is to establish character, which seems to preach the "know your hero before he does anything heroic" method of exposition -- except this story is not about the letter go figure.

The rest of the first paragraph:

I arrived here yesterday, and my first task is to assure my dear sister of my welfare and increasing confidence in the success of my undertaking.

There are five letters that open this classic novel and their propose, in part, is to establish how Dr. Frankenstein became an acquaintance of the letter writer and the story the doctor has to tell. The undertaking mentioned above is to go to the North Pole for the letter writer seems to be at a loose end and looking for meaning in his otherwise meaningless life.

Thankfully, the letters are not long and we soon learn that the letter writer finds a stranger on the ice who, as it happens, has a story to tell.

Chapter 1:

I am by birth a Genevese, and my family is one of the most distinguished of that republic. 

So begins the stranger. But dang, is this going to to be a long-winded life history before we get to the good stuff, to the unnatural monster? Answer: Yes. Seriously, is it really necessary to begin a story with: I was born on....? Just tell us why this person is stuck on the ice in the Arctic!

First thing said:

"Here is our captain, and he will not allow you to perish on the open sea."

This is part of the series 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. Frankenstein comes in at the 92nd greatest novel of all time.

Verdict: Fail

Most people pick this up because of the title and the fact that they think they already know all about the book's premise. There won't be too many people picking this up not knowing anything about it. But the question is, can one keep reading long enough until being hooked? Readers will have to if they wish to finish this book, unless they're reading it as part of a school program, in which case, they'll have to read it whether they want to or not. Perhaps that is the only way this novel will get read in the future as readers unquenchable thirst for simpler and dumber books increases. The film and graphic novel versions on the other hand will most certainly be celebrated for generations to come.

Theodore Moracht

Thursday, 7 August 2014

The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed

Five a.m.

With a title like The Orchard of Lost Souls one should expect an element of the artsy-fartsy, and one characteristic of the artsy-fartsy is short sentences that are meant as powerful expressions or impressions of the soul. If you disagree, that means you are stupid, lowbrow and need to read more Pynchon and Hosseini or in a pinch Dare Me by Megan Abbott. That will get you in the mood for brief, cutting sentence fragments filled with angst, music, soul. Next line:

Too early to eat.

The only good thing about these opening lines is that they are short. Oops, but the next sentence is long:

There is hardly any light, perhaps just enough to distinguish a dark thread from white, but Kawsar washes her face in the basin inside her bathroom, runs a caday over her teeth and slips into the day's costume without wasting any paraffin.

Someone was obviously paying attention to her creative writing teachers, those failed writers, who drone on about always mixing up the narrative with a combination of short simple sentences and long complex structures. In fact, as this moves on, it is clear it is well written, too bad there is no hook, although someone oiling the knees comes pretty darn close to hooking me.

First thing said:

"What took you so long, saamaleyl?"

There are some foreign words and weird sounding names in this so if you don't mind losing a filling trying to pronounce some words, go for it. Overall, this type of book isn't usually written with a hook (character and conflict, strikingly out of the ordinary) on page 1; instead, they try to put the reader into a trance with beautiful words and images, hoping that they will be hypnotized into reading more. The hook is soft and gentle. Readers won't notice they're even hooked until they are way into the book and unable to put it down. Once they're hooked, they'll wonder: When did that happen?

Verdict: Fail

Rudy Globird

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Promises in Death by J.D. Robb

She was dead the minute she answered the 'link.

So we have what looks like a dead prologuie in this opening line of the prologue. The question here is what does it mean by the 'link? The rest of the paragraph explains that "she" the pronoun really wasn't dead as soon as she answered the 'link, because she gets excited and gets dressed, so the opening line is speaking figuratively, not literally. The short prologue ends with this prologuie dying, of course, at the hands of a friend. That is all we learn.

Chapter 1:

Eve stepped out of the shower and into the drying tube.

At this point I'm thinking this story takes place in the future and the word 'link is some kind of future technology. Placing little words here and there will have a way of doing that. It's not bad; it's better than having a description or setting dump that goes for pages. Little is more.

The opening paragraph does little except describe the day in the life of someone in the future and does not hook.

First thing said:

"Be back soon."

The prologue has hooking elements in it but as it is a prologue, the writer must rehook in chapter 1, as the first chapter, where the protagonist's story begins, usually consists of different characters in different places with different problems. However, what makes a chapter 1 unpalatable is that the connection between chapter 1 and the prologue are never evident - so much so that it sometimes feels like one is reading a new story.

Verdict: Pass (barely)

Theodore Moracht

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid

It was a source of constant disappointment to Catherine Morland that her life did not more closely resemble her books.

Obviously a reimaging of Jane Austen and obviously intentional. It is similar in tone to Pride and Prejudice. It's amazing how often Austen is rewritten in the 21st century. One wonders if it is either because her work is hard for the modern mind to relate to and needs a bit of dumbing down, or because people can't get enough of her. I suspect a little of the former and a lot of the later.

This opening line manages to hook for some reason, though the credit is to Austen and not McDermid, who acknowledges the fact. It sums up Austen's Northanger Abbey in many ways. But the line is also self-evident. Most readers want their lives to be like how they are in the novels they read, that is one reason why they read and in some cases obsess over them. The Harry Potter series, Twilight Saga and The Catcher in the Rye come to mind. (Sorry for putting Twilight and The Catcher in the Rye together in the same sentence, but they do share a common publisher in Little Brown. Shame on you Little Brown.)

First thing said:

"And what kind of future is she going to have?"

Good thing there's no copyright on titles, for it's the title together with the byline hook that will make people seek this title out. Even though, Austen's Northanger Abbey is not considered her greatest work, it is her one novel that I enjoyed the most and will probably reread some day. Anyone who knows anything about that novel, will be tempted by this and pray it is similar in some way.

Just for point of reference, the opening line from Austen's work:

No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.

Jane Austen was apt at writing opening lines and has several that are memorable.

Verdict: Pass (barely)

Theodore Moracht

Monday, 4 August 2014

The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa

NUNC et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.

I thought this was translated? So why is the first sentence in another language, and a dead language at that?

Next line:

The daily recital of the Rosary was over. 

The only thing better about this line than the first is that I understand it.

For half an hour the steady voice of the Prince had recalled the Glorious and the Sorrowful Mysteries; for half an hour other voices had interwoven a lilting hum from which, now and again, would chime some unlikely word: love, virginity, death; and during that hum the whole aspect of the rococo drawing room seemed to change; even the parrots spreading iridescent wings over the silken walls appeared abashed; even the Magdalen between the two windows looked a penitent and not just a handsome blonde lost in some dubious daydream, as she usually was.

This reads as if it had been written a hundred years ago, as the descriptive element reminds me of Manzoni, but this was published in 1958 posthumously after some rejection - the same year as Murray Leinster's War with the Gizmos. So not a bad year.

After reading this opening, I can understand why some readers might find it hard to keep reading. Their loss, one must assume. Although this novel was written as a means of combating depression, which does not bode well, it is this that actually makes me want to read on more than anything in the opening pages. Description rarely hooks, no matter how wonderfully written it is. However, there is some suggestion of conflict with the words: love, virginity, death. 

First thing said:

"Those swine stink even when they’re dead."

The opening dialogue looks promising and indicates a master writer at work. It reveals character, an internal attitude, and some conflict in the form of dead bodies. Nevertheless, the droning on of opening narrative text is for insomniacs, not me.

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 Leopard comes in at the 93rd greatest novel of all time.

Verdict: Fail

Theodore Moracht

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Death of a Policeman by M. C. Beaton

The fact that all the police forces in Scotland were to be amalgamated into one large force struck terror into police headquarters in Strathbane.

This line has just a dash of conflict. What it does establish for certain is setting, which is nice in this case if you like reading stories about Scotland. We learn a little later that one detective is happy with this news and since it is terrible news we can assume this detective likes this news for nefarious reasons. He wants to wiggle a certain police sergeant out of his cozy station in a town that will give you laryngitis trying to pronounce it.

First thing said:

"Sutherland is a huge country and it is surely economical to have Macbeth cover all of it."

As this is a series book, those who have read others and are into this are hooked by default as this book probably begins were the last left off. I've read a few of them and they start to tire after a while, with the same character conflicts and behavior, book after book. Cozies aren't usually design to hook in the first sentence or paragraph for fear of giving the readers who adore them a heart attack. Cozies ease their readers into the conflict. So one really has to show a commitment to them before beginning. Fortunately, they are usually worth the time.

However, as this is a mystery novel, there needs to be a mystery sooner rather than later. All of chapter 1's 20 pages is set-up that creates the red herrings by establishing motives for suspects. Only at the beginning of chapter 2 do we get a body.

Verdict: Pass (barely)

Theodore Moracht

Saturday, 2 August 2014

The Water Rat of Wanchai by Ian Hamilton

When the phone rang, Ava woke with a start.

Sigh. Once again we are confronted with a two-cliche hit: bed setting and phone call. One more character in the volumes pop cliche culture waking up to receive a phone call that the novel is starting, and it's all happening right at the perfectly placed cliche hour: 3 AM.

First thing said:

"Wei, Ava Lee."

Foreign dialogue is weak. It's used not because English readers understand what is being said, but because someone thinks that it creates mood and helps to establish setting. It doesn't, it only establishes lazy writing.

On the plus side the scene on page 1 starts to move with dialogue although it's mostly superfluous chit-chat, with no plot point revealed. However, the characters do reveal themselves and a bit about their past. Then one of the characters apologizes for being vague,which is thoughtful. Chapter 1 ends with a promise that at some point, perhaps in chapter 2, a hook will emerge.

This opening is so boring that I can't even muster the energy to shame this. Perhaps it would have been better if Rudy had reviewed this opening instead of me.

Verdict: Fail

Theodore Moracht

Friday, 1 August 2014

Under Cold Stone by Vicki Delany

A cafe. Banff, Alberta. Friday Morning.

The scent of warm baking and fresh coffee was enticing enough to have Lucky Smith willing to endure the cafe's long line.

The conflict in this opening line is that people including the protagonist are waiting outside in the cold to get some muffins or whatever. So this gets the food/eating cliche opening.

I don't understand what drives people to write such sentences:

Paul took his coffee black and liked Tim Horton's just fine - although in this town the Tim's could have quite the line-up for coffee and donuts - and his passion was fishing.

This is not the only one. The opening is a series of discombobulated sentences and paragraphs.

Conflict emerges in the form of some idiots not knowing how to wait in a line up, which is a pain in the butt to experience so most people can certainly relate to these people, you know, the ones who think they walk the earth alone. It doesn't help that in this case these obnoxious characters are a bit drunk and getting all sexist.

First thing said:

"There's a line up here."

Verdict: Pass (barely)

I'll give this a higher rating than I think I should because the opening scene is one I can relate to and something I can care about and get all emotional about.

Theodore Moracht