Beginnings: recent samples

So, I’ve picked up quite a few new books and a scattering of samples recently. Seems like a good time to take a look at some of them and see if there’s anything that immediately gives me a thumbs-up or thumbs-down feeling.

With rare exceptions, I don’t remember who recommended a book or an author, or what event (such as a Kindle daily deal) might have occurred that made me think I should try a sample of a book. If someone in particular did recommend something and I remember that, then I’m likely (very likely) to read at least a couple of chapters even if the opening doesn’t especially grab me. Otherwise, the initial couple of paragraphs can make all the difference.

I’ll start with the samples — I see there are seven of them. In no order, or rather, in the order they exist on the (massive) unread book portion of my Kindle:

1.  Black Sheep: A Space Opera by Rachel Aukes

Captain Halit “Throttle” Reyne ran her third lap through the Gabriela’s vacant corridors. She could hear her boots hit the floor, but she couldn’t feel them. In fact, she couldn’t feel anything below her hips.

The ship’s motion sensors turned on the lights before her, and she knew from fifteen years of being on board the Gabriela that the lights would also turn off behind her. Her lungs burned – it was a good burn, like sipping a glass of dark rum. She pushed herself to run faster. Her leg braces clicked with every step.

Boring! But there is nothing here that turns me off, so I would certainly go one for a chapter or so. I dimly remember reading something somewhere that made me feel I might like this space opera. (By “dimly,” I don’t mean it happened a long time ago. I’m sure it was just last week, but the details still escape me.) The reviews look good.

2.  The Innocents by Michael Crummey

They were still youngsters that winter. They lost their baby sister before the first snowfall. Their mother laid the infant in a shallow trough beside the only other grave in the cover and she sang the lullaby she’d sun all her children to sleep with, which was as much as they had to offer of ceremony. The woman was deathly sick herself by then, coughing up clots of blood into her hands.


This is a literary novel, and I do recall who recommended it — someone on Facebook who belongs to a gardening group and who writes short stories. I knew it was literary, but I thought I would take a look. This novel is about two young people who are orphaned and completely on their own somewhere on Newfoundland. I like survival stories, which is why I decided I’d give it a try, but in fact I’m guessing from this first paragraph that it’ll be too grim for me.

3.  Up to the Throne by Toby Frost

Gulia reached Carlo’s house at dusk. She raised her hand to knock on the front door – and stopped. The door was already open.

Carlo always kept his house locked up. Gulia drew the long knife from her belt and held it so the folds of her cloak would hide the blade.

This is the first book of a series entered in the SPFBO. I thought it looked promising when I was glancing at book descriptions sometime in the last few weeks. This is just a tiny, tiny snippet, but I read the next couple of pages after this and it’s still looking promising.

4.  Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

It was a four-hour journey by train from the coast to the desert where the Tower of Babel rose like a tusk from the jaws of the earth. First, they had crossed pastureland, spotted with fattening cattle and charmless hamlets, and then their train had climbed through a range of snow-veined mountains where condors roosted in nests as large as haystacks. Already they were farther from home than they had ever been. They descended through shale foothills, which he said reminded him of a field of shattered blackboards, through cypress trees, which she said looked like open parasols, and finally they came upon the arid basin. The ground was the color of rusted chains and the dust of it clung to everything. The desert was far from deserted. Their train shared a direction with a host of caravans, each a slithering line of wheels, hooves, and feet. Over the course of the morning, the bands of traffic thickened until they converged into a great mass so dense that their train was forced to slow to a crawl. Their cabin seemed to wade through a boisterous tide of stagecoaches and ox-drawn wagons, through the tourists, pilgrims, migrants, and merchants from every state in the vast nation of Ur.

I’m struck by the vast, vast difference in paragraph length and in emphasis between this one and the one above. Talk about a demonstration of “opening with action” versus “opening with description.” Wow. I like this a lot. This one was also an entry in a previous year’s SPFBO.

5.  The Greater Trumps by Charles Williams

“. . . perfect Babel,” Mr. Coningsby said peevishly, threw himself into a chair, and took up the evening paper.

“But Babel never was perfect, was it?” Nancy said to her brother in a low voice, yet not so low that her father could not hear if he chose. He did not choose, because at the moment he could not think of a sufficiently short sentence. A minute afterwards it occurred to him that he might have said, “Then it’s perfect now.” But it didn’t matter; Nancy would only have been rude again, and her brother too. Children were. He looked at his sister, who was reading on the other side of the fire. She looked comfortable and interested, so he naturally decided to disturb her.

Elaine T mentioned Charles Williams in a comment last week. I hadn’t even realized he was one of the Inklings. This is a delightful beginning, even though Mr. Coningsby is immediately presented as kind of a jerk. It may also be the only novel every published that begins with an ellipsis.

6.  The Vine Witch by Luanne G Smith

Her eyes rested above the waterline as a moth struggled inside her mouth. She blinked to force the wings past her tongue, and a curious revulsion followed. The strangeness of it filtered through her toad brain until she settled on the opinion that it was best to avoid the wispy, yellow-winged ones in the future.

This was a free-to-borrow book via Amazon Prime. The teaser is: A young witch emerges from a curse to find her world upended in this gripping fantasy set in turn-of-the-century France. I did not expect it to start with a toad’s eye view of the world. I do find this interesting and engaging. Yes, blinking does indeed help frogs and toads swallow a big mouthful.

7.  Blood Standard, by Laird Barron

As a boy, I admired Humphrey Bogart in a big way. I coveted the homburg and trench coat. I wanted to pack heat and smoke unfiltered cigarettes and give long-legged dames in mink stoles the squinty-eyed once-over. I longed to chase villains, right wrongs, and restore the peace.

Upon surviving into manhood, I discovered the black and comedic irony that is every gumshoe’s existential plight, the secret that dime novels and black-and-white movies always elide: each clue our intrepid detective deciphers, each mystery he unravels, each crime he solves, makes the world an unhappier place. I got smart and became a gangster instead.

This one sounded good — the protagonist does not remain a gangster; he winds up becoming a good guy, though morally probably still pretty gray, and the real story starts at that point.

 Isaiah begins a new life, a quiet life without gunshots or explosions. Except a teenage girl disappears, and Isaiah isn’t one to let that slip by. And delving into the underworld to track this missing girl will get him exactly the kind of notice he was warned to avoid.

I read the whole sample, but the problem was, I could not force myself to believe in two, maybe three, important elements of the set-up. That made me reluctant to go on and I wound up deleting the sample. In case you’re curious, here is the element with which I had the biggest problem:

You are going to be snatched by enemies and tortured to death. You can’t get out of the city via the airports. As you are completely aware of this situation, you therefore:

a) wait for the situation to occur as you have foreseen; you are snatched by enemies and tortured, but you are saved largely by luck as well as your gangster boss.

b) get out of the city in some other way than by plane and disappear.

c) stick around, but make very, very sure that your gangster boss protects you against the entirely predictable snatch-and-torture scenario.

Our protagonist goes for (a). I was, and still am, baffled by this choice. I’m not sure how an author could sell this. I didn’t buy it, and so when I came to the end of the sample, I didn’t go on.

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7 thoughts on “Beginnings: recent samples”

  1. Re: book 7, I hate it when a character who’s supposed to be smart does something stupid for no reason, or otherwise doesn’t act in keeping with their characterization. It gets in the way of my ability to invest in the story.

    That was actually a problem I had w the third wayfarer book from Becky Chambers – not as egregious, but one of her POV characters had a plot that depended on him being unbelievable naive, given his background.

  2. I just finished Up To The Throne. I downloaded it based on the blurb you quoted in an earlier blog.
    Honestly, I had to push to finish it. It started out well, but it has more POV characters than Game of Thrones. And about half way through, the main characters start doing things like going to the theater because, well, why not?
    (Because if it doesn’t have any bearing on the story don’t waste my time, thankyouverymuch.)
    Okay, that’s my pet peeve, things being in a story that don’t /have/ to be there. Other people feel differently. But the story would have benefitted from some trimming.

    I’d be curious to hear your take on Charles Williams. I haven’t read him, but the Inklings did hold him in high esteem.

  3. Allan Shampine

    On book 7, that does sound like a hard sell. I’ve been sitting here pondering how an author could possibly do it. The only thing that leaps to mind is that if you mean “foreseen” in the prophetic sense, then the character might be invested in the idea that their premonitions are accurate. Even trying to directly change one might challenge their self-image. But if it’s just a problem they see coming because they’re a detective, it’s just nuts.

  4. Allen, no precognition, it’s just a supposedly competent person making a completely unbelievable decision to do nothing to protect himself.

    SarahZ, aargh, unbelievable naivety drives me up the wall, so I’m sorry to hear that.

    Evelyn, alas! I usually dislike stories with a huge cast. Not always, though, so we’ll see. I am actually now moderately curious to read this just to see if “going to the theater” strikes me the same way it struck you.

  5. No. 7 (and SarahZ’s comments) remind me of a quarrel I have with the Chinese TV show I’m currently watching, Sleuth of Ming Dynasty. (Which is btw GORGEOUSLY filmed and has great food). Genius character realizes that someone in a nobleman’s estate is likely a serial kidnapper and murderer and has just kidnapped again, so he goes to request the nobleman allow him to search the estate… and he goes ALONE, telling no one, with no backup plan. Of COURSE the nobleman himself is the kidnapper, and Protagonist ends up captured as well. I kept yelling at the TV, “You have a plan, right? Tell me you have a plan!” and he did NOT have a plan.

    I’m told the show is really good after this, but I’m so disgusted with protagonist that I had to turn it off after that episode. Might take a few days to cool off before I try again.

  6. YES, Mary Beth, I have definitely yelled, THIS IS YOUR PLAN? many times. Not a great thing to have your readers or viewers yelling when they should be immersed in your story!

  7. I tried the Throne title and didn’t finish the sample. Nothing had made me care for anyone or anything in the story. I’ve been pretty firm with samples in the last few months – most don’t make the cut to purchase. That one with the long descriptive opening didn’t either. I kept wanting to rewrite, punctuate, at least re-paragraph it.

    I, too, am curious of how Williams will strike Rachel. When I said From All False Doctrine was a Charles Williams book I didn’t have a specific one in mind, but when I went and looked at them, it seemed like The Greater Trumps was the one my backbrain was thinking of… something about Sybil. And lo, now Our Hostess is giving that a try.

    People keep recommending Chinese TV and I keep bouncing – the graphics cue ‘fake’ somehow(current hypothesis: too sharp) and I just can’t get over it.

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