Friday First Lines (volume 3)

I asked a few authors to comment on the first sentence of their book, and I got such a great response.   So good, in fact, that I’ve turned this into a little series here at Books on the Brain called Friday First Lines.  Each Friday I’ll share First Line thoughts by two or three authors.

Will these first sentences be enough to entice you to add them to your TBR list? They were for me!

The Clover HouseAuthor Henriette Laridis Power writes:

First sentence of THE CLOVER HOUSE:  

“On those rare occasions when she couldn’t control the world around her, my mother placed the blame squarely on America, the country she had reluctantly immigrated to from Greece in 1959.”
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We all do try to make the first sentence effective. I think, though, that it would be too daunting for most writers to set out with the goal of creating a first sentence as memorable as the opener of, say, Pride and Prejudice or Anna Karenina. At least I know I would feel too much pressure. The first sentence should draw the reader in, but it does, after all, have to fit in with the tone and style of the rest of the novel. Better to spend one’s writerly energy writing a good manuscript than to squander all the creativity in one place.
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A good first sentence can take so many forms. It can engage the reader’s curiosity. When you read “A screaming comes across the sky” in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, you don’t really know what’s going on, but you know you want to find out. Or a good first sentence can introduce the reader to a new way of expressing the world, as Joyce does with “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a razor and a mirror lay crossed.” Or it can establish an imbalance that sets the story in motion, as with Jane Austen’s famous opening sentence “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” All of these–curiosity, imbalance, newness–will suck the reader in.

I wrote a version of the first sentence for The Clover House when I began the manuscript, but the opening changed significantly at some point in the writing process. The sentence that stands now isn’t the one I began with. Even the original version I wrote came to me simply as part of the writing process. I didn’t treat that sentence any differently than the rest of the sentences in the novel. In revision, certainly, I was aware that the sentence had to earn its place at the beginning of the story.

Bungalow NightsAuthor Christie Ridgway writes:

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“Vance Smith had faced down Taliban bullets with more cool than he felt sitting on the beachside restaurant’s open-air deck.” –First line of BUNGALOW NIGHTS by Christie Ridgway, HQN Books
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First lines have a lot of work to do! You want to set up a question in the reader’s mind immediately. When and why had Vance encountered Taliban bullets? What’s disrupting his cool now, when he seems to be at some safe and sunny location? You want to entice the reader with that first sentence into reading the next, and then the next, and so on. It usually takes a couple of days of thinking for me to settle on the right opening scene, but once I have it, the first sentence usually presents itself quickly–but then must be edited and massaged until it feels just right.
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Sometimes, there are words before that first sentence designed to tell part of the story too. BUNGALOW NIGHTS features an opening quote by Ovid, “Every lover is a soldier,” that I think conveys that love can mean a battle to victory and always, always takes bravery.

Come back next week for First Line thoughts from authors D.E. Johnson (The Detroit Electric Scheme) and Peggy Hesketh (Telling the Bees).

Friday First Lines (volume 2)

I asked a few authors to comment on the first sentence of their book, and I got such a great response.   So good, in fact, that I’ve turned this into a little series here at Books on the Brain called Friday First Lines.  Each Friday I’ll share First Line thoughts by two or three authors.

Will these first sentences be enough to entice you to add them to your TBR list? They were for me!

Love Water MemoryAuthor Jennie Shortridge writes:.

The first sentence of Love Water Memory is:

“She became aware of a commotion behind her, yet it seemed important to keep scanning, searching for something out over the water, toward low mountains, a skiff of clouds. .”

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My first sentences, as well as opening paragraphs, get reworked more than any other single part of my books. This one, in particular, had to convey several things:
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1. That there was a “she” who was unnamed. 2. That she’d come to that place for something, but she didn’t know what. 3. That the place she found herself in wasn’t immediately familiar—she didn’t know the name of the mountains or the body of water.
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It also starts with the premise of the book: She became aware. I try to tell the whole story in each book in that first sentence, paragraph, section, before moving into the “front story.” It’s a tall order! But as a reader, I’ve always loved it when I finish a book and go back to read the opening and discover that the author laid it all out for me, yet left it for me to discover.

For Internal Use OnlyAuthor Cari Kamm writes:

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First sentence from FOR INTERNAL USE ONLY:
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“And there it was. What I had been looking for the past fifteen minutes, my sign—to The Brooklyn Bridge.”.

I try to suck the reader in after the first page.  I write the first couple chapters and then go back to the first paragraph to marinate. I read the first page to myself several times and then create a first sentence to catch the readers attention. I want them to want more!.

In my novel, FOR INTERNAL USE ONLY, it came to me in a couple minutes. I imagined myself as the character and what she would think or say in that moment. This involved a lot of talking to myself and usually out loud. My fiancé eventually realized that I’m not crazy and it’s part of my writing process!  The first sentence remained unchanged throughout my writing and editing process.

Come back next week for First Line thoughts from authors Henriette Lazaradis Power (The Clover House) and Christie Ridgway (Bungalow Nights).

Winter Reading Series: KEEPING THE FEAST Discussion Questions

Hello Winter Readers!

This month we’re reading Keeping the Feast by Paula Butturini, a beautiful and inspiring memoir of food, depression, marriage, and family that took us on a journey from the dinner table in her childhood home in Connecticut all the way to the open air markets in sun-drenched Italy.  We are so excited to have Paula here in real time answering any questions you might have on Monday, February 22, at 5 pm PST (which is my time zone- she lives overseas but will be in Washington, DC, on the day of our discussion).  If you’ve read Keeping the Feast, or are curious about it, please mark your calendars and join us as we discuss the book with Paula!

Here is a synopsis of the book, followed by a few discussion questions:

Keeping the Feast is a story of love, trauma, and the personal and marital healing that can come from a beautiful place and its simple traditions. It’s a memoir about what happens when tragedy and its psychological aftershocks strike a previously happy marriage and a couple must stubbornly fight to find its bearings. Most significantly, it is a book about the power of one of the most fundamental rituals – the daily sharing of food around a family table. Food — the growing, shopping, preparing, cooking, eating, talking, sharing and memory of it — becomes the symbol of a family’s innate desire to survive, to accept and even celebrate what falls its way.

SO READERS- let’s get the discussion started! These are just a few questions to get you thinking- you don’t have to answer them all. Please feel free to add your own questions, and respond to each others answers, too.

1. What was your overall view of the book?  Did you enjoy it?  Was it what you expected?

2.  Were there parts of this book that were difficult to read?

3.  What aspect of the book did you enjoy most?

4.  John and Paula’s marriage was brand new when tragedy struck.  It might have been easier to leave than stay, yet they got through it.  Would you have had the strength to stay, given the circumstances?

5.  What role do you think Rome and rituals played in their recovery?

6.  What role does food play in your family?  Do you live to eat or eat to live?

7.  While reading Keeping the Feast, did you ever get frustrated with Paula?  With John?

8.  Paula had firsthand experience with depression through her relationship with her mother before it overtook her husband.  Were you surprised that she handled her husband’s bouts with depression the way she did, given her history?

We can’t wait to hear your thoughts on Keeping the Feast. Thanks for reading along with us.  And don’t forget to join us on February 22nd for our discussion with Paula!

Guest Post: Allyson Roy, author(s) of Babydoll!

babydoll-192x300Please welcome Allyson Roy, author(s) of the new book, Babydoll, to Books on the Brain!  Allyson Roy is actually Alice & Roy, husband and wife collaborating authors. 

Did you know laughter makes you healthy? Literally. Studies have shown it enhances the cellular immune system and produces disease-fighting anti-bodies.

“Wait a sec,” you say, “isn’t this supposed to be a book blog?”

That’s right. And today we’re here to talk about a book that will make you laugh so hard you’ll forget about all the latest doom and gloom. And improve your health.

Not that there aren’t tense, poignant or meaningful elements in our Saylor Oz series. Book #1 (which won a Daphne du Maurier Award) addressed an issue that lurks in most of us, thanks to our celebrity obsessed culture — a deep, down secret wish to maybe just once experience what it’s like to be irresistibly beautiful. 

And BABYDOLL, which just came out on August 4th, taps into ideas about people striving to make a name for themselves. And forgotten people who might as well be nameless. It looks at how far many will go to get their wishes. And how some react when it all goes up in smoke. 

But we weave these themes into novels that are part suspense, part comedy and part women’s fiction.

Alice and Roy, a.k.a. Allyson Roy

Alice and Roy, a.k.a. Allyson Roy

The friendship of our two main characters is a major factor in BABYDOLL. Saylor Oz and Benita Morales are women who have worked to achieve their professional goals, yet carry with them all the vulnerabilities of their past. Like most women, they can be strong and confident one minute, but insecure and needy the next. They’re smart, but they get upset and make impulsive, foolish decisions that get them into trouble. Their relationship with each other has lasted longer than those they’ve had with men — Benita is divorced, Saylor never married. Being roommates, they fall into bickering and blaming. But when it comes down to the real stuff, they are deeply loyal and willing to put their lives on the line for each other.

And, oh yeah, they’ll make you laugh out loud. To quote a Pop Syndicate reviewer, “If Saylor and Benita were real, I’d have to friend them on every social network, and go out for beers with them just to experience their humor firsthand.”

Thanks, Lisa, for having us as your guests today!

Blogger Bio:  With backgrounds in the arts – Alice in dance and choreography, Roy in fine art, theater and standup comedy – Alice and Roy spent many gypsy years living and working in the different neighborhoods of New York City and Philadelphia. Their Saylor Oz crime adventure series, set in the Brooklyn waterfront neighborhood of DUMBO, combines suspense, comedy and a bit of girl stuff. 

Visit the Allyson Roy website HERE and check out the TLC Book Tour schedule for Babydoll HERE.

Guest Post: A Room of My Own by Meg Waite Clayton

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Please welcome Meg Waite Clayton, author of the national bestseller The Wednesday Sisters,  to Books on the Brain!  In this essay she writes about her workspace and the special things she keeps there to inspire her.  

Virginia Woolf famously said in “A Room of One’s Own” that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” My room is a bedroom which has in place of the requisite bed and dresser: a desk, a couch, two small round tables suitable for setting manuscripts on, and lots of books.

imageDBI occasionally think I should replace my bookshelves—a walnut bookcase and a china cabinet, both originally my mother-in-law’s—with more practical floor-to-ceiling built-ins that would hold the books now overflowing my shelves. But it’s hard to imagine parting with the history and beauty they bring to my space, so my books spill over to my closet and, I admit it, my floor, my desk, even my couch. I turn to them sometimes when I’m writing. (Whenever I write a party scene, I pull out The Great Gatsby to remind me how it’s done.) But for the most part, I keep books near to inspire me. One glance at the Austens and Eliots, McDermotts and McEwans, among others—many signed by the author—reminds me what I’m shooting for.

The center of my room of my own is my desk. It’s a holdover from my days as a lawyer, when I could afford to buy swanky hand-crafted reproduction Queen Anne. I fell in love with it at first sight, and even when I was still marking up corporate contracts in my lawyering days, I imagined I might someday work up the courage to pursue my childhood dream of writing a novel here on its lovely cherry-wood surface.

webarmadillo-150x98I’m a superstitious old soul, and so I keep on my desktop a number of talismans to bring good juju to my writing: a psychedelic armadillo my sons gave me in celebration of my first publication credit (an essay in Runner’s World, and your guess is as good as mine what a psychedelic armadillo has to do with that!); a Japanese doll my Uncle brought me from one of his many adventures, which wears a string of pearls given me by the Vice-Mayor of Wuxi, China during one of mine; a card, the cover of which is a lovely photo by my friend Adreinne Defendi; a “Follow Your Dream” candle made for me by my friend Mark Holmes; a cheesy “You will always be my Best Friend. You know too much” plaque my best friend, Jennifer DuChene, sent me; a pen holder given to me many, many years ago by the best storyteller in my family, my Uncle Jim—which now holds a pencil (for practical and symbolic reasons) and has taped to it a fortune cookie message: “The great pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do”; my favorite honeymoon photo of Mac and me, now 21 years old; one of my children at 5 and 3, taken 14 years ago; and a digital frame that rotates a myriad of family and friends; and the medal from the one marathon I’ve run (also years old).

webbrendaangel-107x150Like my books, my talismans spill over. Elsewhere in my office are the dried rose petals from the bouquet my parents sent me when I sold my first novel; a collection of champagne corks each marked with a date and event that was cause for celebration; a bullet shell from my turn at a machine gun near some war tunnels in Vietnam, where I was traveling when The Wednesday Sisters sold to Ballantine Books; a writing angel send by my dear friend and fellow novelist, Brenda Rickman Vantrease, to watch over me. Why these particular things? The marathon medal reminds me that if I can run 26.2miles, I can do anything. But I think the other talismans simply make me feel loved, and that love frees me to be myself, to trust myself as I write.

marathonmedalforweb-150x145The desktop photo above is repeated on my website, on my Writers’ page. There, you can scroll over my talismans—as well as marked up manuscript pages, outlines, my journal and the “research bible” I put together for The Wednesday Sisters—for a glimpse at how I write. Some of the items listed above are pictured, but others have been added since I took the photo: my talismans multiply almost as fast as my books do. The roses? I have a wonderful husband, who gently nudged me toward my dream years ago by telling me he believed I could do what I feared I could not.

To be honest, my desktop rarely looks as neat as it does in this photo. It’s usually covered with post-it notes to remind me of things I want to do or revisions I mean to make. Dirty coffee cups, yes, and chocolate wrappers, newspaper clippings, and books. But that’s one of the nicest things about having a room of my own: I can close my door. It allows me what Woolf writes so eloquently of in her essay: room—psychological room—to live in whatever place I choose, free to imagine my own, unlimited world.

megMeg Waite Clayton’s bestselling novel, The Wednesday Sisters, has been selected by major book club programs including the Target Stores Bookmarked program, and the Borders Book Club program. Her first novel, The Language of Light, was a Bellwether Prize finalist, and her third, The Ms Bradwells, is forthcoming from Ballantine Books. Her short stories and essays have been read on public radio and have appeared in commercial and literary magazines including Runner’s World, Writer’s Digest, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and theLiterary Review. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan and Michigan Law School, and lives with her family in Palo Alto, California.

Review: Truth & Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett

imageDB-2.cgiTruth & Beauty by Ann Patchett is the story of the author’s friendship with troubled fellow author and poet, the late Lucy Grealy.  

I read Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face last year and developed very strong, protective feelings for this brilliant girl/woman who was permanently disfigured by Ewing Sarcoma and the resultant treatment and surgeries.  When I heard that Bel Canto author Patchett had written about their friendship, I couldn’t wait to read more about Lucy, but then I quickly changed my mind when I discovered Lucy’s family’s reaction to the book.

The idea of the book lingered in the back of my mind, however, but because I didn’t want to betray Lucy, I refused to buy it.  Then it seemed like I was just being stubborn about it. Finally, on a trip to the bookstore, I happened to see it on a table and, wanting to be close to Lucy again, I took it home.  Part of me is glad I read it but another part wishes I’d left it alone.  The book made me appreciate Ann Patchett’s writing more (I wasn’t a fan) but it made me think less of Lucy.

Ann and Lucy attended Sarah Lawrence college at the same time but were not friends.  Ann knew who Lucy was (everyone did) but Lucy was only vaguely aware of Ann.  Then they were both accepted to the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop, where they were roommates and where their love for each other emerged and grew.

patchettgrealey‘Do you love me?  Do you love me best?  Am I your favorite?  Do you think I’m pretty?  Do you think I’m talented?  Will I ever have sex again?’  Lucy plagues Ann with these questions on a continuous basis over two decades.  Who would want to be friends with this clingy, needy, self absorbed woman?  I couldn’t find the Lucy I knew anywhere, the strong, brave, dazzling presence of Autobiography of a Face.  

Lucy had a brutal battle with the aftereffects of cancer.   Her disfigured jaw made speech difficult and swallowing nearly impossible.  She had 6 teeth in her mouth because she didn’t have a stable jaw to hold dental implants.  Her diet consisted of very soft foods and alcohol.  She loved to drink and party and socialize, but basic things like eating and talking were a constant struggle.  Her love life was complicated by her lack of self esteem and her distorted self image.  Her ever-increasing pile of medical bills seemed insurmountable, so she just didn’t open them.  Disorganized and irresponsible, she missed deadlines and frittered away writing workshops.  Chaos ruled.

Ann, the long suffering friend, the ant to Lucy’s grasshopper in that old fable, went to great financial, physical, and emotional lengths for Lucy, but it was hard to understand why.  The relationship seemed extremely one-sided, almost a parent/child dynamic, but with a peer.  What was Ann getting out of it?  Lucy would sit in Ann’s lap, demand her attention when Ann was speaking to others, whisper to her during dinners out, pout if Ann got too successful or earned a writing fellowship or received an award.  Then later there were lies and drug abuse to contend with, and while Ann occasionally lost patience with Lucy, she stuck by her to the end.  Why would anyone put up with Lucy’s crap, unless they had some kind of savior complex? 

But this book.  What does it say about Ann?  About Lucy?  I can’t shake the feeling that in writing this book, Ann wanted to get back at Lucy for the shabby way she treated her by baring her secrets to the world.  Is this admirable? Is this the way a true friend would behave?

And Lucy.  Can anyone be this one dimensional, this needy and self involved, and still have so many friends?  She was an absolute magnet for others and had dozens and dozens of friends, yet in this book I can’t see any redeeming qualities in her at all.

There is no doubt in my mind that Ann Patchett loved Lucy Grealy but I question her motivation for writing this book.  It feels like a payback of sorts.  It is not really a biography, an autobiography, or a memoir, because it doesn’t tell the story of either of their lives, only the shared bits, and only from one vantage point, so I’m not sure what to call it.  

If you’re going to read this book, read Autobiography of a Face as well.  At least you get a more fully realized image of Lucy Grealy that way.  If I had read Truth & Beauty first, I wouldn’t have wanted to read any more about Lucy, ever.  I’d recommend the two books together but I wouldn’t recommend reading this one on it’s own. Somehow it doesn’t seem fair or accurate by itself.  If you’re interested in either writer, I’d recommend it, although I’m not sure it has much worthwhile to say about friendship in general.  It is well written and I can appreciate Ann Patchett’s talent, but it’s hard to know what is true, and there’s not a lot here I’d call beautiful.

Guest Post: A Little Theory of Mine by Marisa de los Santos

Marisa sitting oneThe lovely Marisa de los Santos, author of the New York Times Bestseller Love Walked In and Belong to Me (review and giveaway HERE), is guest posting today about balancing work and family.  Thanks, Marisa, for this wonderful essay!

A Little Theory of Mine by Marisa de los Santos

I get the question a lot, usually from women and often during book group meetings:  “How do you balance writing and family?”         

The easy answer is that I write my books while my children are at school.  Technically, this is true.  Any writing I do happens somewhere between drop-off and pick-up.  Weekends and evenings, I get a little time at my desk, but mostly these parts of the week are given over to homework, ballet classes, piano lessons, swim practices, meets and games, family dancing in the living room, family singing in the car, family bike-rides, movie-watching of the G/PG variety, and general hanging out.  When the kids go to sleep at a reasonable hour, which doesn’t consistently happen, weeknights belong to my husband and, sometimes, a glass of wine.  Saturday nights are ours, too.  So I balance work and family by writing my books Monday through Friday, while the kids are at school. 

imagesBut this answer is really too easy.  In fact, I stopped giving it for the same reason that I am deeply attached to it:  it makes my life sound tidy, when my life is anything but tidy.  Plus, I didn’t usually get away with it.  Most of the time, before the answer was completely out of my mouth, people jumped in with:  What about groceries?  What about laundry?  What about reading and exercise and volunteer work and meetings and friendships and email and shopping and dealing with the plumber?

While I have some help with some of these tasks and obligations, both from my husband, a true partner, fellow writer, and prince among men, and from a highly capable and much-loved young woman who helps with the kids a handful of hours a week and does errands for me on Thursday afternoons, I end up attending to many of them myself, usually during the hours between drop-off and pick-up.  When I explain all of this to people, I’m sure they wonder how my books get written at all.  I wonder myself.

lovewalkedpaperbackBut the truth is that I do all of the things I do not only because I have to, but because I want to.  I want to sit in the choking heat of the indoor pool or in the lobby of the ballet school and watch my kids do what they love.  I am co-president of Home and School (our school’s version of PTA) because I want to be part of the place where my kids spend so much of their time.  I want to be the one who thumps the melons and picks the piece of salmon my family will eat.  I need exercise, friendships, and family dancing to keep me sane.  Still, sometimes I resent how little time I have to write.  On bad writing days, I beat myself up over the squandered hours.  I envy the lives I imagine other writers are leading.  I long for the peace and time and big trees of writers’ colonies, despite the fact that I have never been to one and, in my heart, don’t really want to go. 

Over time, I have developed a theory.  If people hear it and dismiss it as rationalization, well, I don’t blame them.  It probably started out as rationalization, my putting a positive spin on my frenetic days and limited writing time.  But no matter why I came up with the theory, I’ve come to believe in it.  Not just believe in it.  I’ve come to see that it’s more than just a theory.  It’s big and holistic, ill-defined and not terribly original, but I recognize it as one of the deep truths of my life.

It goes something like this:  everything feeds everything else.  Writing time and family time are false distinctions.  Sweating it out at swim practice, watching my son’s arms arc and arc and arc; choosing one tomato over another; helping set up for the school book fair; listening to my daughter read an Ivy and Bean book aloud, her downward-cast eyes and chirping voice; watching Law and Order reruns with my husband; my obligations to the people I am honored to have in my life, the hours I spend with them:  all of these things make me–I almost wrote “a better writer,” but better than what?  Better than who?  All of these things make me a writer.  They impact directly the words I write in palpable and invisible ways.  Just as the hard-won hours I spend with language, story, and characters make me the friend, sister, daughter, wife, mother that I am.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.