Friday First Lines (volume 1)

One thing we like to do in my book club is to take an annual quiz at our year-end party.  I list the first and last sentence of each book we’ve read over the year, mix them up and see who is able to match them with the correct books.  (Oh, I know what you’re thinking – “Whoa! They are so crazy!”  I know, I know, we really know how to party!)  ANYway, for some this challenge is simple, but for others, not so much.  Either way, it’s fun looking back over the list and sharing our thoughts on why authors chose to open (and conclude) their books the way they did.

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’m turning 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!

DownloadedFileAuthor Kevin Lynn Helmick writes:

And then there was the heat.  Driving Alone, Kevin Lynn Helmick, 2012

It’s been over a year now since I wrote that line so I’ll do my best to remember how it got there. I’m pretty sure I added it sooner rather than later, but once I did I really didn’t have any doubts about it. It just worked, for me anyway. It could have even worked as a title or last line. It’s simple, yet suggestive enough to be complex, and I’m a big fan of sentences like that. I don’t think I changed it at all once it was down. I think it just came up without too much thought,  but looking at it now, And there was, is probably from the Bible, not that I’m all into the Bible, but It looks Biblical to me now, in foreboding sort of way.

First lines, are they important? I suppose if you come to the page with any kind of idea that what you’re doing is important, then that’s a good place to start, followed by the second line, and third, and so on.  I can only speak for myself, and I see the first line as an invitation, a promise, it’s me saying, ‘come with me, I wanna tell ya something. It’s fun in here, interesting at least, and worth your time. I Promise.”

I think your first line should raise an eyebrow. It should be memorable, but not flashy or show-offy. I usually spend quite a bit of time writing and re-writing that opening, first act, scene one, and I probably did on this book too, but not the first line. That was set in stone, and everything else kind of hung from it. I’ve written worse sentences, I’m sure, and I don’t have any writer’s remorse over that one.

DownloadedFileAuthor Erika Marks writes:

The first sentence of my novel, THE MERMAID COLLECTOR (NAL/Penguin), is as follows:

The little girl was breathless with excitement as she pushed through the fence of hedges toward the water’s edge, skinny freckled legs and lopsided red pigtails spinning in opposition as they disappeared into the fog
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First sentences are such tricky things! I know as a reader, I always “taste” a novel by reading that first sentence or that first paragraph, so there’s no question to me that it has to draw a reader in. That said, I will often change my first sentence all the way up until the final draft (or maybe even later), simply because it may take me writing (and rewriting) the whole novel to really know what I want that first “taste” to be, what flavor I want that first sentence to have. In the case of THE MERMAID COLLECTOR, which centers around a town celebrating its annual Mermaid Festival and the relationships that blossom because of it, I wanted to establish the setting right away, to let the reader know that they too were about to be swept up in the excitement and magic and romance of the impending festival, just like the little red-haired girl.

Next week we’ll hear from authors Jennie Shortridge (Love Water Memory) and Cari Kamm (For Internal Use Only).

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Waiting by Ha Jin

200px-Waiting_a_Novel_Book_CoverTitle:  Waiting by Ha Jin

Publisher:  Pantheon, 1999

Pages:  308

Genre:  literary fiction

Setting: Communist China during the Cultural Revolution

Where did you get it? It was a Christmas gift when it first came out in hardcover.  It won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1999.

Why did you read it? My book club chose it for our March discussion. I’ve had it on my shelves for years, and this was my second reading.

What’s it about?  Based on a true story the author heard from his wife on a visit to China, Waiting is about a doctor who waited 18 years to divorce his wife so that he could marry a co-worker at the army hospital where they both worked.

Following parental and societal expectations, Lin Kong enters into an arranged and loveless marriage with the traditional Shuyu, an older woman who was willing to care for his ailing mother.  Lin works in an army hospital in the city, where he forms a bond with a nurse named Manna.  They are forbidden to be together and their every move is watched and dictated by the army.

Each year on his annual visit to the countryside to visit his wife and daughter, he asks Shuyu for a divorce so that he might marry Manna, and each year something happens to prevent it.

This is a tragic story, not a love story.  Bound by custom and duty to both the loyal Shuyu and the more modern Manna, Lin feels trapped.  He is indecisive, emotionally immature, repressed and unfulfilled.  His guilty feelings over stringing Manna along and watching her become an “old maid” in the eyes of others had him trying to set her up with his cousin and promoting a relationship with a high ranking military official, both of which failed to materialize.   Manna resigns herself to waiting for Lin.  Finally, after 18 years, the law says he can divorce his wife without her consent, so he does.

Conforming to expectations like good Comrades and following the rules, Lin, Shuyu and Manna are all waiting for a love that never really comes, and while they’re waiting, their lives pass them by.

What did you like?  The story was interesting.  I noted some symbolism, which I generally like, even though some of it was a bit heavy handed.  The writing was spare and straightforward, even blunt.  I learned a lot about Chinese culture and the political climate of the time.

What didn’t work for you?  The author basically tells the entire story in the prologue.  I would have preferred to discover it in the reading of the book, rather than have it handed to me in the first few pages.  Some of the language is clunky in the way it might be if it was a translation, but it’s not.  In fact, the author’s first language is Chinese, not English, and while it is all technically correct, sometimes his word usage is odd.  The writing is quite restrained, which I suppose is reflective of the political climate, so perfectly appropriate.  The plot is somewhat repetitive.  And finally, Lin is such a passive character, I wanted to shake him.  I’m not sure why any one woman would wait for him, let alone two.

Share a quote or two:  

“You strive to have a good heart. But what is a heart? Just a chunk of flesh that a dog can eat.”

“Life is a journey, and you can’t carry everything with you. Only the usable baggage.”

Who would enjoy this book?  Anyone interested in Chinese culture and communism.

Who else has reviewed it?  I couldn’t find too many reviews, but Lu’s is excellent:

Regular Rumination

Anything else to add?  I liked this book a lot better the first time I read it, and I’m not sure why, but it was definitely a good choice for our book club, giving us a lot to talk about.  Click HERE for discussion questions from Book Browse.

#bookclubproblems

1.  Not enough wine.  #wine #nowine #fail #pleasebringmorewine

2. When the conversation gets hijacked by the “smart one.” #boring #knowitall #shutup #idgafaboutyourmastersdegree

3. When there are too many side conversations going on.  #rude #annoying #RUDE #putasockinit

4.  When someone treats book club like a therapy session.  #whiner #personalproblems #stopit #canwepleasetalkaboutthebook  #passthetissues

5.  When someone RSVPs to bring a dessert then doesn’t show up for the meeting.  #flake #wheresmychocolate

6.  When someone doesn’t want you to ruin the ending for them because they haven’t finished the book.  #ohwell #sucksforyou #nexttimereadit

7.  When someone stays later than everyone else every month.  #goodnite #imtired #gohome

Please feel free to add your own hashtags in the comments!

6 Years of Book Club

Six years.  11 regular members (although we’ve had as many as 13).  70 different books (we skipped two months).  Math is not my strong suit but even I can see that 11 x 70=770 individual books.  Some were borrowed from the library, but the vast majority were purchased in paperback, on Kindles, on Nooks, and on iPads.   That’s a whole lot of purchasing!

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We talk and talk and talk about the books we read.  We dissect them.  We dog-ear them and mark them up.  Some of us go crazy with highlighters, others prefer post-it notes.

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We share recommendations with each other.  We pass books around from member to member and have side conversations about those books.  Gone Girl is currently making the rounds, and before that it was The Help and before that, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Most of us have read those books now even though they were never actually selected for book club discussion.

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When one of us falls in love with an author, we fall hard.  We’ll read their next book and we’ll read all their previous books.  We’ve discussed Lisa See’s books 3 times.

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We tell our friends about the books we’ve discussed.  We blab about them at hair salons, grocery stores, offices, our kids’ schools.  We talk books at parties and backyard BBQs and family dinners.  We encourage people to read the books we love when we’re in a bookstore or staring at the stacks of books in Costco.  We gush about them on Facebook.

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browniesI understand now why publishers court book clubs.  Book club members love books, book clubs buy books and book clubs sell books.  If any publishers would like to court us and donate a set of 11 books to help us celebrate our 6th anniversary in March, we would gladly accept, wink wink 😉  You would not have to twist our arms.

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Six years.  770 books for our little club, plus countless more that were purchased by others on the pure enthusiasm of our 11 members.  Book clubs really are a powerful force!  And we also like to eat.  Pass the brownies.

CLICK HERE to see which 70 titles we’ve read in our first 6 years!

Dead End Gene Pool-Readers!

Wow!

We had a great response for the Dead End Gene Pool Spring Reading Series!

All 20 copies were claimed quickly, and the following readers will be receiving their copies of the book very soon (maybe you’ve already received them??).

1.  Me!

2.  Kathy from Boarding in My Forties

3.  Nancy from Bookfoolery and Babble

4.  Ash from English Major Junkfood

5.  Susan from Suko’s Notebook

6.  Kristi from Peetswea

7.  A. Rock-Contreras

8.  S. Walling

9.  D. Johnson

10.  Kathy from Bermuda Onion

11.  Heather from Raging Bibliomania

12.  Jennifer from Mrs. Q: Book Addict

13.  R. Newberg

14.  J. Shoppell

15.  Bellezza from Dolce Bellezza

16.  Care from Care’s Online Book Club

17.  Lisa from Lit and Life

18.  P. Berger

19.  R. Berven

20.  V. Lancaster

What a great group!  Can’t wait to discuss it with all of you on May 18th!  I’ll let everyone know the exact details for the discussion with the author as it gets closer.

And I’m so sorry if you were interested in reading with us and missed out this time.  The book was published on April 1st, so it can be found in stores and requested from libraries.   If you can get your hands on a copy, please join us!

Not Feeling the Love for A RELIABLE WIFE

In which I rip on a book everyone loves…

Disclaimer:  This is not a review, just rambling.  I’m not trying to be a literary critic, just a reader who didn’t care for a popular book.  I know many people will disagree with me.

When A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick was suggested and then voted in as my book club’s selection for March, I was so excited.  Having seen the buzz on the book blogs last year, my expectations were pretty high.

I thought it would be a dark story set in a bleak environment.  It was.  I assumed the setting would play a role on the psyche of the characters.  It did.  Beyond that, I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I couldn’t wait to find out.

Well.  Let’s just say this book is not for everyone.  I did not love it; in fact I found parts of it silly.  I’m clearly in the minority, so maybe it’s me.

Ok, so to bring you up to speed in case you haven’t read the book, there is Ralph Pruitt, a wealthy man in frozen-over Wisconsin living in a town named for his family.  He’s lived alone for 20 years with no love in his life and no family.  He owns everything and everyone works for him.  He advertises for a reliable wife and Catherine Land has answered his ad.

Catherine, we know immediately (from the back of the book and in the very beginning), is anything but honest.  She’s playing a role.  She flings her red velvet dress out the window of the train headed for Wisconsin and dons a basic black wool dress, more appropriate for an honest, sensible woman.  She has tiny blue bottles of liquid that she keeps with her.  She sews gems into the lining of her dress.  She’s up to something.

We find out soon enough that Ralph had another family, years ago.  He has an estranged son, Tony (or Andy, or some form of Antonio) from his first marriage.  Ralph made him pay for the sins of his mother and feels guilty for the way he treated him.  That guilt is the driving force of the story.

So it sounds good, right?  These aren’t really spoilers, mind you.  All of this unfolds very early on, and I’ll admit I was hooked.  I knew something was up- there were big red flashing signs all over the place- it was just a matter of what.  The book got off to a great start.  I wanted to know what would happen.

But then a lot of things went wrong, for me.  Without giving anything away, let’s just say Ralph sends Catherine on a big errand- which is the entire reason he needed a reliable wife.  My question, for those who’ve read the book, is why?  Why would he need to get married to do this?  Why did he need her to do this particular task?  Couldn’t he have paid one of the many townspeople who answered to him?  He had buckets of money.. there was no other way?

And Tony.  He also sends Catherine on an errand.  Why couldn’t he accomplish his mission on his own?  Couldn’t he have carried out his personal vendetta without her?

Yes, these men were using Catherine for their own purposes.  But please don’t feel bad for her, for she is a lying, murderous, despicable person who I thought at times was becoming a decent human but really wasn’t.  She had me fooled more than once.

There were some gaping plot holes and unexplained motivations and some head-scratcher stuff.  There was some laughable, silly dialog.  I found myself thinking, “That’s dumb” or “WTF?” a number of times.

The destructive, deceitful, selfish, sexually fixated characters were disturbing- and this book has three of them.  And I’m generally ok with dark and disturbing.   But then there were long looooong passages about sexual obsession that were a complete yawnfest.  It’s a sad day when reading about sex is boring, but the lengthy descriptive paragraphs were icky and tedious and I found myself doing a lot of skimming.

Another thing that was creepy and odd was Ralph’s obsession with people in town going mad and killing themselves or their families.  Apparently all that Wisconsin snow during the long hard winters made them crazy. Why was he so fascinated with sex, money, his long lost son, and tragic stories, to the exclusion of all else?

Ralph seemed so pathetic to me.  He did not seem like a powerful, wealthy tycoon so much as a passive old man.  Catherine, with her little blue bottles, is not a loving wife, and he knows it, and he does not care.  In fact, he welcomes her betrayal, allowing it to happen and even hastening it’s progression.  She’s aware that he knows, and everyone is acting like it’s perfectly ok.  And I did not understand that.  Why would he resign himself to that fate, willingly?  Somebody smarter than me, help me out.  Was it because he thought Andy/Tony would never come home?  And if that’s the reason, could he think of nothing else to live for (regular sex, perhaps, after the 20 year drought?)

There was a ton of repetition.  Like the phrase “such things happened”.  And I found the imagery of birds tedious.  Also the imagery of water- at first I thought the author was doing something kind of cool and subtle with the imagery, but after the 5th description of something being like water, or another mention of a bird (the heart beating like a bird, her hands fluttering like birds, “welcome home” sex like the singing of a bird, and the bird in the cage, and the bird in the garden..) I was rolling my eyes.  Again, maybe it’s just me, but I don’t need to be beaten over the head with imagery (or feathers) to get the meaning.

The whole scenario seemed vaguely familiar to me.  The frozen tundra, the long-suffering and wealthy bachelor with a haunted past, the beautiful woman with secrets of her own..  where have I read this before?  An old dusty classic from high school, perhaps?  I couldn’t place it but it had a very familiar feel.

So tonight is our book club meeting, and I cannot wait to see what everyone else thought about A Reliable Wife.  Someone else is leading the discussion tonight and I’m guessing she’s done a little research.  I’m going to sit back with my mouth closed and let the meeting unfold before I say a word about my impressions.  Maybe I will learn something and be enlightened.  Maybe I’ll see the error of my “analysis,” such as it is.  Maybe I’ll be the only one who doesn’t think the book is amazing and brilliant.  Or maybe not.

I’ll let ya know.

Book Review: The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf

The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf was my book club’s selection for our February discussion.  It was also a book we had on tour recently through TLC so I’d read a few reviews before I ever opened the book- although I don’t think that swayed my opinion of it.

Calli and Petra are 7 year old friends and playmates.  Calli is a selective mute.  You’d think that would make friendships difficult at best, yet Petra understands her, knows what she likes and dislikes, and is able to talk for her and smooth things over for her socially.  Friendship is easy at 7, and their friendship was very sweet.

Calli and Petra go missing from their respective homes in the wee hours of the morning on the same day.  Both girls’ homes back up to a wooded area where the girls have spent many happy hours playing, so the families think perhaps they are together and for some reason playing in the woods (at 4:30 am?).  Calli’s mom, especially, is not very concerned, having grown up in and around those woods.  But Calli’s dad, an abusive alcoholic asshole, was supposed to be leaving on a fishing trip with a friend at 3:00 am that very morning, and no one really thinks too much about that (I’m not giving anything away here because the reader knows from the beginning that dear old dad didn’t go fishing).  The police chief has a romantic history with Calli’s mother and a rivalry with Calli’s father, so there’s a massive conflict of interest, yet he’s on the case.  Small towns do things differently than the big cities, I ‘spose.

This book is told in very short chapters with very short sentences in the voices of different characters including Calli, Petra, Calli’s mom, Calli’s brother Ben, Petra’s dad, the police chief Louis.  Oddly, all the voices sounded the same to me, whether it was a 7 year old girl, a middle aged cop, or a 57 year old professor.  Same vocabulary, same tone- there just was no discernable difference.  I guess this bugged me more than it might have had it not been for the fact that the book I just finished prior to The Weight of Silence (American Rust) did that one particular thing VERY well- making the characters really distinct and individual.  I’m sure it’s not an easy thing for an author to do but it really goes a long way in engaging the reader.

This book was a page turner and I read it in two sittings (it would have been one, but I had to force myself to put it down and go to bed).  I wanted to know what would happen and so I kept going. And throughout I kept thinking, what is the deal with the dad?  What the heck is going on? However, the ending was unsatisfying and the writing unsophisticated.   The plot was full of so many coincidences that believability went right out the window.  Maybe I’m just a much more discerning reader than I used to be, but this one felt very amateurish.

I wonder what the other members of my book club will think..