Recent Acquisitions: Opening lines

I just noticed today that I’ve picked up a startling number of books this month, for someone who doesn’t have time or attention to read fiction. Fifteen fiction titles! That’s close to twice as many as any other month this year so far. I thought it would be interesting to take a little tour through them.

Which do you think presents the catchiest intro? Let’s have a little run-off for these books, just to see how they strike you: (a) Which opening most makes you want to read the rest of the page? (b) Any strike you as boring or unappealing?

Feel free to pick more than one for both (a) and (b). I’ll give my picks at the end.

By the way, I realize this is not quite fair, because a slower buildup may not bother you – it doesn’t bother me – but with the first sentence or first few sentences pulled out and read in isolation, I think a book that doesn’t start with a real hook is at a disadvantage. If you had the book in front of you, of course you could read a page or so, not just a few lines. Even so, what do you think of these beginnings?

Oh, also, a couple of these books have prologues, and in that case, I started with the first couple of lines from the first actual chapter.

1. Stolen Songbird (Jensen):
My voice rose an octave, resonating through the Goshawk’s Hollow marketplace, drowning out the bleating sheep and the hammer of the blacksmith down the way. Dozens of familiar faces abandoned their business, expressions uniform in their nervousness as they anticipated the note I had dreaded for the past month. She liked an audience for my failures.

2. Vessel (Durst):
On the day she was to die, Liyana walked out of her family’s tent to see the dawn. She buried her toes in the sand, cold from the night, and she wrapped her father’s goatskin cloak tight around her shoulders. She had only moments before everyone would wake.

3. Strange Country (Coates):
It was three o’clock in the morning and the car had been parked in the same spot since the night before, had been there long enough that it had iced over; the ice had half-melted and it iced over again so that it now looked permanent, like brittle armor. A Toyota, twenty years old, maybe a bit more, with nothing more than a little rust along the wheel wells. There was a web of spidering cracks in the back window on the passenger side, from a kicked-up stone or a hard stab with something pointed, not much yet, but as warm days and cold nights heated and cooled the glass, the cracks would spread.

4. Count to a Trillion (Wright):
Menalaus could not help but pause to inspect the bore of the bone-needle as he was raising it to a point slightly above and between his eyes. It was like looking down the muzzle of a loaded pistol.
He found that thought comforting.

5. Fragments (Wells)
“Raise a glass,” said Hector, “to the best officer in New America.”
The room came alive with the clink of glass and the roar of a hundred voices. “Cornwall! Cornwall!” The men tipped their mugs and bottles and drained them in gurgling unison, slamming them down or even throwing them at the floor when the booze within was gone. Samm watched in silence, adjusting his spotting scope almost imperceptibly.

6. The Night of the Miraj (Ferraris)
Before the sun set that evening, Nayir filled his canteen, tucked a prayer rug beneath his arm, and climbed the south-facing dune near the camp. Behind him came a burst of loud laughter from one of the tents, and he imagined that his men were playing cards, probably tarneeb, and passing the siddiqi around. Years of traveling in the desert had taught him that it was impossible to stop people from doing whatever they liked.

7. A Fatal Twist of Lemon (Greenwood):
The first day my tearoom opened was wonderful – mostly. Funny how life can go swimmingly one moment, and fall to pieces the next.

8. Child of Fire (Connolly):
It felt good to sit behind the wheel again, even the wheel of a battered Dodge Sprinter. Even with the passenger beside me.
The van rumbled like a garbage truck, handled like a refrigerator box, and needed a full minute to reach highway speeds. I’d driven better, but I’m a guy who has to take what I can get while I’m still alive to get it.

9. Curse the Moon (Jackson):
Cuba, December 1960
Atcho slouched against a wall, alone in a small plaza illuminated by the dim yellow light of a single streetlamp. His eyes probed the surrounding darkness. His fine, aristocratic features were hidden behind a week’s growth of unkempt beard, while his normally well-groomed hair fell in shaggy brown locks below his ears.

10. Emilie and the Sky World (Wells):
Emilie took a deep breath and knocked on the door.
Twilight had fallen, and the quiet street smelled strongly of dinner. Karthea’s house, like all the others, had a chunky stone façade and wood-framed windows with cheerful curtains and potted flowers on the stoop. The gas lamp on the corner had already been lit, glowing bright in the failing daylight.

11. The Whitefire Crossing (Schafer):
I knew right from the moment I opened Bren’s back room door this job was going to be trouble. See, here’s how it should go: Bren, waiting alone, with a package on the table and my advance payment in his hand. Simple and no surprises. So when I saw Bren, waiting, not alone and no package on the table, I got a little twitchy.

12. Sidekicked (Anderson):
It’s Tuesday.
It’s Tuesday, and I’m in costume, but just barely. That is to say that I have my mask and outfit on, so nobody knows who I am. Or almost nobody, at least. Which pretty much sums up my life as a whole.
It’s Tuesday, which means it was sloppy joe day in the cafeteria, which is bad enough, but that’s not the worst thing that can happen to you.

13. Steerswoman (Kirstein)
The steerswoman centered her chart on the tale and anchored the corners around. A candlesick, a worn leatherbound book, an empty mug, and her own left hand held the curling parchment flat. The lines on the paper seemed to be f varying ages, the ones toward the center drawn with cracked, browning ink, those nearer the edges sharp and black.

14. Catherine, Called Birdy (Cushman)
12th Day of September: I am commanded to write an account of my days: I am bit by fleas and plagued by family. That is all there is to say.

15. The Emperor’s Edge (Boruker):
Corporal Amaranthe Lokdon paced. Her short sword, night stick, and handcuffs bumped and clanked at her thighs with each impatient step. Enforcer Headquarters frowned down at her, an ominous gray cliff of a building that glowered at the neighborhood like a turkey vulture, except with less charisma.

Okay, my choices: I think there’s no contest for the catchiest openings. (12) and particularly (14) walk away with this category.

Oh, well, actually, I like a lot of these openings. I think five of these selections have very catchy hooks and almost all of them are appealing in one way or another. It’s true (12) made me laugh and I love (14), which was specifically recommended to me as an example of how to open a story, but I got almost every book on this list because of a recommendation from someone or because I had the first book in the series, so it’s only to be expected they would mostly appeal to me. To me, the voice in (11) is particularly engaging, for example. Martha Wells recommended that one, so there you go.

Now, (6) looks like it may be a little dark for me – the resignation, maybe fatalism, expressed in this opening makes me flinch a little. I may hesitate to pick this book up when I start looking for things to actually read. On the other hand, I think Liz Bourke is the one who recommended it. If so, that’s a plus and will make me reserve judgment.

I’ve seen a lot about (9) on Twitter this month, and so when I saw it was free on Amazon, I picked it up. But frankly this opening is the only one of the entire set above that does not appeal to me. I feel like I am being told too much about this character’s appearance, for no reason. No one else is in this scene, so who is thinking about this guy’s fine, aristocratic features or noting that his brown hair is usually better groomed? He would hardly be thinking about himself that way. Mind you, I’m the type of writer who sometimes barely describes a pov character at all – have you noticed? – but still, this doesn’t work for me. This could make put me off opening this book – or it could make me get to it faster, on the thought that I might dismiss it right away and get it off my TBR pile (the virtual pile, in this case, but still).

Okay, just for fun, here’s the opening of the second book I have in mind for my new Knopf contract. I believe I may have posted this here a little while ago, but it’s the one that springs to mind for me as possessing a catchy intro, so I’m tossing it back in here for comparison.

16. The White Road of the Moon (Neumeier):
There were more than twenty-four hundred people in the town of Tikiy-by-the-Water, but only one of them was alive.
Meridy Turiyn had been alive for just over fifteen years when she came down the mountain path to the town square of Tikiy-by-the-Water and found her favorite spot, by the crumbling base of the central fountain, already occupied. A ghost sat there, a boy, no one she knew. He was leaning back on his elbow, staring down into the depths of the dry fountain, one hand resting on the head of a big brindled hound. Where shadows fell across boy and dog, they were hard to see, even for Meridy, but the early sunlight glistened off dust motes in the air, delicately limning the place where they almost were.

Yep, I still like this opening.

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13 thoughts on “Recent Acquisitions: Opening lines”

  1. I like a lot of them, but not 1, 4, 5, 8, or 9. 9 seems especially bad–“probed the surrounding darkness”?? Most of the others are simply not impressive as first sentences, but wouldn’t necessarily turn me off the book. 14 is definitely one of the best opening sentences I can think of–you get Catherine’s voice so clearly just from that one line. I’m also very fond of the opening of Maggie Stiefvater’s SCORPIO RACES, and Hardinge’s LOST CONSPIRACY (though granted I just love everything about that book). And I am extremely intrigued by the first sentence of White Road of the Moon.

  2. #I4 is definitely attention-getting. But I have to admit, I do want to read more of #16. ^_^

  3. I’d also like to mention the opening lines from a book I recently read, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North (aka Catherine Webb):

    The second cataclysm began in my eleventh life, in 1996. I was dying my usual death, slipping away in a warm morphine haze, which she interrupted like an ice cube down my spine.
    She was seven, I was seventy-eight. She had straight blonde hair worn in a long pigtail down her back, I had bright white hair, or at least the remnants of the same. I wore a hospital gown designed for sterile humility; she, bright-blue school uniform and a felt cap. She perched on the side of my bed, her feet dangling off it, and peered into my eyes. She examined the heart monitor plugged into my chest, observed where I’d disconnected the alarm, felt for my pulse, and said, “I nearly missed you, Dr August.”

    A couple of paragraphs later:

    “The world is ending,” she said. “The message has come down from child to adult, child to adult, passed back down the generations from a thousand years forward in time. The world is ending and we cannot prevent it. So now it’s up to you.”

    Yeah, I just had to buy this. And it was very cool.

  4. Agreed that #9 is bad, and does not incline me to pick up the book. Of the others, most I could take or leave, even if I didn’t have opinions based on having read the books. #3 would not normally grab me, but one of the aspects of Coates’ writing that I like is how she uses lots of small details like that, but of people’s body language, or whatever, to indicate emotion or other information that the characters won’t put into words. In this one she’s setting the season, for sure, and whoever’s POV we’re in (I do know, but I know you haven’t read it yet) is a careful observer.

    # 1 is mildly interesting – the character has some character off the bat.
    #11 sets the character and an issue.

    And I really want to read the book that follows #16. :-)

    (canned 3qts tomatoes today.)

  5. The ones I like seem to be the ones with the protagonist noticing sensory details, which surprises me. I like the cold sand under the toes of #2, the potted flowers of #10, the worn book in #13 (and the difference that direct sunlight makes to seeing ghosts in #16!)
    My favourite is #3, though- I was appreciating the way the coating of ice is described, and then it says that the window is cracked “from a kicked-up stone or a hard stab with something pointed,” – subtle story hook! Why does the narrative voice bring up the possibility that somebody has stabbed a car? I looked the book up and found that it’s a mystery with paranormal elements, which suits that paragraph very well. I might see if the first one in the series is available at the library.

    Usually the only way I’d decide about a book from the first paragraph alone is if it *really* turns me off. None of these are that bad, though some of them seem a bit generic. I’d normally flick through the first few pages or kindle-sample-worth.

  6. Maureen, wow, that’s a lot that don’t work for you! I like the hard-boiled detective tone of Child of Fire and I definitely want to read more of the (4) and see where Menalaus is coming from. The sniper kind of thing in (5) I could take or leave, but I liked Partials well enough that eventually I will certainly re-read it and then go on with Fragments.

    Robert, I definitely like the “dying my usual death” line. Very catchy.

    Elaine, shoot, we have tiny little green tomatoes, but I doubt we’ll be canning before August. Mid-August, at that.

    Jen, I’ve noticed that when looking at openings that work; they often do have a lot of building-the-scene sensory detail. More than you would think unless you actually look at how many great books open. I hope you do try this series by Coates and that you enjoy it. I’m taking a bit of a break right now to re-read the second book and then I’m looking forward to reading Strange Country.

  7. I follow the consensus in finding #14 the best of the lot and #9 the worst. However, I was left cold — neutral or (very) mildly negative — by a number of them:

    #1 – I get a whiny sense; a couple sentences isn’t enough to pass judgment but enough to go on guard.
    #3 – starts off uninteresting, and then the twist has more of a bleak note than anything else.
    #7, 12 – sound amateurish. For #12 it would work better for me without the last bit.
    #9, 10, 13 – nothing there to be appealing or unappealing.
    #15 – the final simile just doesn’t work for me.

    On the more positive side, #2, 4, 5, 8, 11 and 14 are all catchy enough that I’d want to keep reading. And #16 — as a pure first *sentence* it may actually be the best on the list (even #14 needs “That is all there is to say.” to get the full effect).

  8. Well, Craig, I knew we had fairly different tastes. But you don’t like (12)? And you don’t find (9) unappealing just from this snippet? Huh.

    Interesting how differently we all respond. I thought nobody would like (9) and everybody would like (12).

    Reading back through them, I still find (11) particularly catchy. I think that one is moving up my get-to-it-soon list.

  9. I misspoke slightly in my first comment, or whatever the commenting equivalent of misspoke is. When I said, “Most of the others are simply not impressive as first sentences,” I meant the numbers I had already mentioned as not liking much, aside from 9 which actively annoyed me. Realized reading this that it sounds like I didn’t find ANY of them impressive, except Catherine, which isn’t true.

    I think I also am reacting a bit to the out-of-contextness; several of the ones I’m not wild about rely too heavily on individual lines to create an effect, imo, but this might be quite different when actually reading the books.

  10. Maureen, I understood what you meant. I surprised myself by rather liking the gimmicky ones, even though they seemed, well, gimmicky. I agree that reading the first five pages of a book is a very different and much more fair test of whether it’s going to appeal to you.

    I do wish I’d asked: If you could pick one of these titles to keep reading, which would it be? I think (14) might have won — or (11) — or, hey, (16).

  11. Oops, my first line is correct about #9 — my reaction was negative, not neutral. So there we agreed. On #12, though, I do get an amateurish impression, mostly from the last sentence quoted. Sorry, there it is. (I wasn’t as impressed by Stolze’s SINNER as you were, either, but I hesitate to make generalizations based on two data points, even for a sub-subgenre as narrow as superhero fiction. Which by rights I ought to like better than you, anyway.)

    I should probably throw in somewhere that I’ve actually read two of the books listed, #4 and #13, and both of them are good. Openings aren’t everything.

  12. 2 I’ve read and loved. I would definitely keep reading 11. 10 I probably would but not based purely on the first line. Definitely would keep reading 16 too, and maybe 7 if the first page grabbed me more than that line does.

  13. Yeah, nothing much grabbed me about the first few paragraphs of (7), but I sometimes like cozy mysteries, and Sherwood Smith gave this series a thumb’s up. That’s why I thokught I’d try the first one.

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