2015 in First Sentences

Now that we’re halfway through the month of March, it’s time to finally dig into the books I read in 2015 and complete the next installment in my Opening Sentences series. My Goodreads records indicate I read 33 books last year and, once again, I’ll be splitting them up between Fiction and Non-Fiction and leaving aside any how-to books or others that dispense with a narrative. Unlike in 2014, I read a lot more contemporary works last year (Homer and Shakespeare aside) and my split between fiction and nonfiction wasn’t nearly as even. As I came to realize I’d be moving into fiction, I began reading more of it.

So, if you missed my earlier posts in this series, here’s the gist: I take a look at the first sentence from each book I read in a given year and critique it’s effectiveness as it pertains to hooking the reader’s attention and making them ask questions. A good opening line should spur the reader’s mind to curiously demand answers to the questions of who, what, why, when, where, and how. At least I think so, anyway.

Fiction

As with 2014, I spent nearly all of 2015 living out of cycling panniers and, at times, a wheelie-duffel. I continued to read books set in the areas where we were traveling — this list contains some wonderful books set in Japan, Greece, Turkey, and Bali — but also, thanks to constant urging from a certain sister of mine, I finally began reading the Harry Potter series as well. Unlike in 2014, the majority of the authors I read in 2015 are still with us.

1) Shogun by James Clavell (1975)

The gale tore at him and he felt its bite deep within and he knew that if they did not make landfall in three days they would all be dead.

An excellent example of thrusting the reader into the thick of the action. Without specific mention of a ship at sea, we know from words like “gale” and “landfall” that our character — the unnamed him — is in a dire predicament on a tossing ocean. That they have just days to live raises the stakes to their highest level right off the bat. Shogun was one of my favorite books of 2015, an excellent piece of historical fiction that I’ll be discussing in greater detail in the coming weeks.

2) The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima (1954)

Uta-Jima — Song Island — has only about fourteen hundred inhabitants and a coastline of something under three hundred miles.

The Sound of Waves is one of the simplest, most beautiful love stories I’ve ever read, yet this opening is dry as dirt. If I didn’t tell you it was a love story, you might mistake this opener for the first lines of an incomplete Wikipedia entry. Though the island does play a large role in the story, this is a pretty poor way to begin a novel in my opinion.

3) Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield (1998)

In 480 B.C. the forces of the Persian Empire under King Xerxes, numbering according to Herodotus two million men, bridged the Hellespont and marched in their myriads to invade and enslave Greece.

The above line is from the historical note that precedes the first part of the narrative (an opening sentence that serves only to list several dozen titles and nicknames of Xerxes). This statement of historical fact is not only integral to the story, but the style in which it was written — one that is very formal, from a position of authority — sets the tone for the book to follow. Gates of Fire is a terrific historical fiction novel about the 300 Spartans that held off the million Persians, as told by a fictitious lone surviving Spartan to Xerxes himself. Reading this book as we cycled across the Peloponnese en route to Sparta and Athens really helped bring the landscape to life.

4) The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (2011)

Schwartz didn’t notice the kid during the game.

This simple opener hints to something unusual about the kid, perhaps a greatness that went undetected earlier. Perhaps something far worse? We don’t know, but we’re curious. This line also suggests that Schwartz is the protagonist (or at least the narrator) but he’s not. The story is really a multi-plot novel involving the intertwined stories of five different POV characters (and a sixth character who arguably plays the largest role in the story despite not getting the POV treatment). Usually the first named character is going to be the protagonist, but it’s a rule that needn’t be followed strictly. Especially in literary fiction.

5) Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (1997)

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number of four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

Obviously the Dursleys are not the protagonists of the story (the book’s title tells us as much), proving again that the first named characters need not always be significant. What this opening sentence does so well is that it sets the tone of the narration — you can just hear the condescension in their voices, “we are perfectly normal, thank you very much.” It also suggests that there are those who are not normal in this story’s world and that, more importantly, the Dursleys are at odds with those who aren’t like them.

6) Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling (1998)

Not for the first time, an argument had broken out over breakfast at number four, Privet Drive.

One of the things I loved about the Harry Potter books, and that I suspect was wholly intentional to make them even more accessible to younger readers, was that the beginning of each of the first few books takes place around the time of Harry’s birthday, during summer break, in the home of the Dursley’s. Readers picking up the second book will immediately feel pity for poor Harry having to once again deal with his cruel muggle relatives.

7) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling (1999)

Harry Potter was a highly unusual boy in many ways.

Yes, we know. We’re two books into a series that has many characters and events that can be considered highly unusual. Sure, we readers are always interested in discovering additional facets of Harry’s uniqueness, but this is a pretty bland opener that doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, nor does it help to set the place.

8) Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (2000)

The villagers of Little Hangleton still called it “the Riddle House,” even though it had been many years since the Riddle family had lived there.

It’s still the summer before another school year begins at Hogwarts, but we’re not beginning it in the unusual way. Instead, Rowling introduces a new town — Little Hangleton — and a family we’ve never before heard of. This, as a growing Potter fan, was as startling as it was refreshing. Though I particularly enjoyed the customary way in which each of the prior three books had begun, that setup couldn’t continue forever. This was a great change of pace that immediately got my attention. I hope to read books five through seven later in 2016.

9) Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres (2004)

The people who remained in this place have often asked themselves why it was that Ibrahim went mad.

Well now you have me curious too. Why did Ibrahim go mad? Who is Ibrahim? Where is this place you speak of and why did most of the residents leave; if I’m correct in assuming something drove many of them away. Or were they killed? By hinting at the madness of Ibrahim, the author reveals a snippet of the future. We carry this knowledge with us throughout the book and it helps us to better understand the events that follow and see how they may affect the characters of the story. It’s a very subtle foreshadowing that can be quickly forgotten if we’re not careful.

10) The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley (2008)

It wasn’t chance. There wasn’t any part of it that happened just by chance.

Something significant had just happened and, by the narrator’s tone, we’re led to believe that whatever it was cannot be easily explained or chalked up to mere coincidence. We aren’t told much in these opening lines, but we’re intrigued. Sort of. For as much as I enjoyed this book, a piece of historical fiction set in early 18th century Scotland, this particular opening line, when looked at in isolation, is one of the weaker of the lot.

11) Tender Mercies by Kitty Thomas (2011)

“Darcy.” She turned at the sound of Asher’s voice and smirked, wiggling her ass at him.

We’re introduced to two characters right off the bat and, in case there was any question about language, tone and content, the author answers it right there in the beginning of the book. We know there’s a sexual playfulness in the relationship between Darcy and Asher. We have no indication of the cruel and at-timed disturbing story that’s about to unfold. Nevertheless, we’re curious.

12) The Wind is Not a River by Brian Payton (2013)

When John Easley opens his eyes to the midday sky his life does not pass before him.

A lot of writers say it’s unnecessary (and some say it’s bad form) to use the character’s full name at the first mention, but I want to think that it can help with tone. This book takes place in the 1940s, during a time when introductions were more formal. You can just picture it: “John Easley, nice to meet you,” as he reaches out to shake your hand. Of course, John isn’t shaking hands in this opening line. His life does not pass before him, but perhaps it should have. If we read between the lines we can surmise John just had a near-death experience and, contrary to the cliche, his life did not pass before his eyes.

13) The Iliad by Homer (800 B.C.E.)

In the war of Troy, the Greeks having sacked some of the neighboring towns, and taken from thence two beautiful captives, Chryseis and Briseis, allotted the first to Agamemnon, and the last to Achilles.

This is taken from the “Argument” that precedes Book I in the epic poem. The version I read included this “Argument” before each major section of the roughly 700-page poem to help explain the events that follow. So, while the above wasn’t actually in the poem, it’s still the opening line of the book concerning the battle of Troy and Achilles’ reluctance to take part in it. This first sentence, stated in the manner of exposition, is of vital importance to the story that follows as Agamemnon decides to eventually take Achilles’ bride for his own. This opener teller us that Agamemnon and Achilles fought on the same side (the former is a king) and that they were prone to split the spoils, including women. As far as an opening goes, it doesn’t leave us with too many questions, but we are curious about the fate of the women.

The true first sentence of The Iliad is as follows:

Of Peleus’ son, Achilles, sing, O Muse,
The vengeance, deep and deadly; whence to Greece
Unnumbered ills arose; which many a soul
Of mighty warriors to the viewless shades
Untimely sent; they on the battle plain
Unburied lay, a prey to rav’ning dogs,
And carrion birds; but so had Jove decreed,
From that sad day when first in wordy war,
The mighty Agamemnon, King of men,
Confronted stood by Peleus’ godlike son.

14) Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut (1961)

This is the only story of mine whose moral I know.

This sentence not only makes us wonder what the moral is that he’s referring to, but makes us question the validity of the unnamed stories this narrator may have told elsewhere. Beginning a book with a confession like this is one of my favorite techniques. I believe it puts the reader on the side of the narrator, as it makes them not only seem more human, but as if there’s a secret bond between them. When someone confides in us, particularly something that may be deemed embarrassing, we tend to feel closer to them and trust their words more. We know we’re not perfect and are drawn to those who admit their own shortcomings.

15) Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare (1601)

If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken and so die.

This comedic play begins in the apartment of the Duke’s Palace. The Duke is present, along with Curio, several Lords and musicians. The melancholy Duke is wallowing in his own pity concerning the unrequited love he feels for a woman who wants nothing to do with him. He wants to stuff himself fill with music in hopes that his yearning may finally draw to an end. This opening line is one of the most famous of the play and even it can only truly be understood (to me, at least) with the benefit of re-reading and hindsight.

16) The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook (2013)

The beast is here. I’ve seen him. Berti’s seen him. Dietmar’s seen him.

I’ve included four sentences here and we still have very little idea what is going on, where the story is taking place, or what this “beast” is. We know there’s a character called Berti and another called Dietmar, the latter of which is clearly of German descent. But that’s it. We’re curious as to what the beast is — that word, beast, surely refers to nothing pleasant. And if the narrator saw it and Berti and Dietmar saw it as well, it’s only fair that we should see it too! For some reason this opening paragraph ends with closed quotation marks, yet there are no opening quotes anywhere in the paragraph. Probably just a result of sloppy e-book conversion.

17) Inside Charlotte by Jo B. Hayve (2015)

Cornstalks. Charlotte was watching cornstalks.

We have a character name and a semblance of setting, but little else. I don’t much care for the one-word opening sentence so I included the second just to have something more useful. But even then, we’re left with little information and little curiosity. Charlotte is watching cornstalks. So what? We’re certainly not thrust into the thick of things (though we soon will be). And yes that is a psuedonym serving for the author who didn’t want to lay claim to this provocative and at-times (most of the time!?) raunchy piece of erotic fiction.

18) Love and Death in Bali by Vicki Baum (1937)

It must, I think, have been in 1916, a time when Europe was too much preoccupied to remember the existence of a little island called Bali, that I came by chance into the possession of some very beautiful photographs.

Here we have a story being told through recollection about a time and place few in the Western world know about, let a lone experienced. We’re curious about the photographs the narrator mentions and of this exotic-sounding place called Bali. We know from the title that there is going to be love and there will be death and, if we know our history, we know that Bali (in fact much of Indonesia) was under Dutch control in the early part of the 20th century. We want to hear this man’s (or woman’s?) story.

19) Evil and the Mask by Fuminori Nakamura (2013)

While that big case was moving towards an unexpected solution, the fact that several unnatural deaths surrounded it was barely mentioned.

The above sentence was extracted from a “Detective’s Diary” that serves as a prologue of sorts to the story. It tells us that we have a detective who will be serving as a narrator (at least some of the time) and that there is a surprise twist in a major case he’s been working on. The “unexpected solution” interests us, but it’s what comes after the comma that really gets our attention. Few things pique a reader’s curiosity more than a detective-narrator admitting to unnatural deaths either going unmentioned or, worse, being covered up.

Just because it was executed so wonderfully, I want to include the first sentence of the first chapter here as well:

“Now I’m going to tell you some important facts about your life.”

20) Texas Blood Feud by Dusty Richards (2009)

The acrid smoke from the blazing live oak fire swirled around his batwing chaps when Chet picked up the branding iron.

Holy adjectives! This is a prime example of overwriting the description. It’s a common flaw — something all writers do at one point or another (I know I have) — but to have this much of it in an opening sentence is really jarring. We don’t need to know precisely what species of tree is being burned in the fire. Isn’t nearly all smoke acrid? We know what chaps are, but few of us have probably heard of batwing chaps or know the difference. The most important part of this sentence — Chet picking up a branding iron — is almost lost in the description. I really enjoyed the story being told in this book, but the writing was of a lower quality than I’m used to reading and made it hard to finish.

21) Magic Bridge by Thomasina Burke (2011)

Once we told them, our friends always asked something like, “How did you ever come up with this hare-brained pact to scatter your ashes?”

This book is written in a documentary-style, as if the main characters are all sitting in separate rooms taking turns telling their version of what went on. It’s a very beautiful love story that moves from boy-meets-girl to girl-outlives-boy to girl-scatters-boys-ashes-around-the-world. The opening sentence succeeds in making us wonder what the ashes-spreading pact was. Unfortunately, the characters were infused with so much egotism and condescension that it really made it hard to get through the story. Cliched phrases like “hare-brained” are commonly used throughout the book to bolster the narrator’s opinion of herself. Oh, we’re soooo wild and and crazy. Ugh. I cannot remember reading a book with a more unlikeable set of characters.

Post Image by Nathan, used under Creative Commons.

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