The first sentence

A writer needs to get the attention of his/her readers as soon as possible — to make them want to read further, to make them not put the book back onto the bookshop shelf in favour of another book. There are many ways to do this and it can take anywhere from a single word to an entire chapter. But what I want to write about today is that all-important first sentence.

A book’s first sentence can be long or short, descriptive or elusive, intriguing or demanding, full of purple prose or stated matter-of-factly — but its purpose is to begin the story and hook the reader. Some writers do this better than others.

Today, I simply want to share with you some of my favourite opening sentences — some with comments, other without. These are not necessarily my favourite books, these are just sentences that I found had grabbed my attention and made me remember them. I am presenting them in splendid isolation from the remainder of the text to which they belong. Have a read and see if you can guess from which books I have extracted them — I’ve listed the books at the end of the post.

1. I’m going to start with my all-time favourite — a truly memorable and intriguing sentence that sets up reader expectations. It’s a very recognisable sentence and also a rather long one — far longer than is fashionable to write in this day and age.

“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”

2. Another absolute classic:

“The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

3. A little gruesome, but memorable.

“Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own.”

4. “I heard a story once about a little kid who came home from school and found his mother dead on the kitchen floor.”

5. “I keep thinking that I have a tunnel in my chest.”

6. What I love about this sentence is the way ‘dæmon’ is written with such everyday matter-of-factsness.

“Lyra and her dæmon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.”

7. “I know a place where there is no smog and no parking problem and no population explosion . . . no Cold War and no H-bombs and no television commercials . . . no Summit Conferences, no Foreign Aid, no hidden taxes—no income tax.”

8. “When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it’s never good news.”

9. Okay, okay — this is one sentence plus one extra word. But that one extra word makes all the difference.

“It wasn’t even five o’clock and Milo had already murdered Mrs Appleby. Twice.”

10. “Aubrey Fitzwilliam hated being dead.”

11. “Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.”

12. “All children, except one, grow up.”

13. “Later, while I was facing the Potter Moth, or fleeing for my life from the First Ones, or helping man a cannon aboard Jack Havock’s brig Sophronia, I would often think back to the way my life used to be, and to that last afternoon at Larklight, before all our misfortunes began.”

14. “Through the ruin of a city stalked the ruin of a man.”

15. “Something eerie came over European civilization in the early twentieth century and led to a madness which was called ‘the Great War’.”

So there you have it — some of my favourite opening sentences. They probably say more about me than the books they come from. There are probably other ones out there that I may like better… but either I haven’t read them yet, or I read them so long ago that I can’t remember them, or I was simply unable to get my hands onto a copy of the relevant book to check the quote.

But what about all you people out there in the blogosphere? What are your favs? Leave and comment and share an opening sentence.

And tune in next time for some random quotes.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Here are the books:

1. The War of the Worlds by HG Wells, 1898.

2. Neuromancer, William Gibson, 1984.

3. Angels and Demons, Dan Brown, 2000.

4. The Inner Circle, Gary Crew, 1986.

5. After the First Death, Robert Cormier, 1979.

6. Northern Lights, Philip Pullman, 1995.

7. Glory Road, Robert Heinlein, 1963.

8. Stormbreaker, Anthony Horowitz, 2000.

9. The Slightly Skewed Life of Toby Chrysler, Paul Collins, 2009.

10. Blaze of Glory, Michael Pryor, 2006.

11. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Dauglas Adams, 1979.

12. Peter Pan, JM Barrie, 1911.

13. Larklight, Philip Reeve, 2006.

14. Doctor Who and the Dalek Invasion of Earth, Terrance Dicks, 1977.

15. The First A.I.F.: A Study of its Recruitment 1914-1918, LL Robson, 1970.

Angels in YA Literature (Part 2) – Closer to Godliness

An article in The Guardian, published April 2010, discusses Philip Pullman as a possible trendsetter for the current onslaught of angels in YA fiction. One of the voices of the article claims that “on the ladder that goes up from the mushroom to God, angels are one rung above us”– angels are seen as superior to vampires because they are superior to humans and thus, are “more fertile ground” for the inspired author and the greedy YA reader.

In the second book of the His Dark Materials trilogy, Pullman introduces a pair of supernatural lovers in the form of homosexual angels, who meet with the tween protagonists in one of the parallel worlds featuring prominently in the trilogy. Whilst the angels are not major characters in the series, their presence is significant not only for the connotations to Milton’s Paradise Lost (Pullman cites the story as one of his major inspirations), but also because their description is a massive departure from previous religion connotations of winged beings. The ‘nouveau angels’ from Pullman’s books in their own unusual manner and description express a need for companionship, and feelings of desire and love – previously human-only traits.

Angels in YA literature, as touched on in Part 1 have become like teen humans, hormones-a-racing and usually with something to prove. It should come as no surprise then, that teen protagonists in these supernatural novels are now being written by their contemporaries – teens themselves.

On the homefront, Alexandra Adornetto, at the tender age of 17 has three books to her name from when she signed a publishing deal with publishing giants HarperCollins, and is now embarking on an entirely different journey with Halo, due for release later this year. The twist lies in the way the angels in this book are portrayed – they’re not the tortured, dark supernaturals we’ve come to expect, but rather have their own more ‘heavenly’ reasons for investing themselves in earth’s affairs.

But Alexandra’s not the only teen Aussie on the brink of international angel fiction fame. When I first picked up Charlotte McConaghy’s Arrival (Book 1, Strangers of Paragor) mid-2009, I’ll admit it was total cover lust, and not much else. It was only when I’d finished reading, and completely fallen in love with the characters and the world-building of Paragor, that I discovered the author finished writing the book when she was 16! The heavily-anticipated second book in the series by Miss McConaghy, aptly titled Descent, has been released this month. While angels play a fairly small part in Arrival, there’s the promise of more angel action in the later books, portraying angels as the hero messengers – not so far from its original religious context as one would expect from a teen growing up in the age of Twilight, Hush,Hush and Fallen.

The overwhelming feeling one garners from these books is that new Australian YA angels in fiction don’t fit the Edward Cullen mould. They seem, strangely, to be moving away from the tortured and tragic Byronic teen love interest. With Aussie teens themselves weighing in on the heavenly side of the angel craze, the character of the angel in literature lends itself to a new interpretation – is the craving for angel fiction in YA circles not in fact a generation looking for the new vampire, but rather the evolving natural rebellion of a generation in need of a character closer to God?

Once Upon a Time, There Lived a Book Blogger…

Well, this is exciting.  My very first post in this wonderfully cozy corner of the blogosphere, talking about one of my favourite pastimes in the whole, wide world – books.

About the Blog

‘Poisoned Apples and Smoking Caterpillars’ is geared towards all things fantastical, so this blog’ll include high fantasy; science fiction; gothic Victorian fiction; paranormal fiction; historical and historical fantasy fiction; urban fantasy fiction; fairytales, myths, legends and their retellings… anything magical or removed from our current reality, basically. Fairy godmothers optional, orcs preferred.

The Philosophy Behind the Name

The blog title ‘Poisoned Apples and Smoking Caterpillars’ marries two famous motifs from my all-time favourite tales: no prizes for guessing that ‘Poisoned Apples’ belongs to the Grimm Brothers’ fairytale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; the ‘Smoking Caterpillars’ part hails from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll (now more commonly known as Alice in Wonderland).

Make no mistake, however – this isn’t a blog specifically about children’s books. Nor is it specifically a young adult focus. This is a blog that will feature the prim, the pretty, the ugly and the bloody, the innocent and the experienced, in equal measure. Apples and caterpillars are fine by themselves, but if they’re poisoned or smoking…well, it’s a whole different matter, isn’t it?

The Authors  I Tend to Gush About

Philip Pullman’s one of them. C.S. Lewis is another. In terms of Australian authors, I pretty much worship Markus Zusak and Margo Lanagan…and if Tim Winton ever decides to write a fantasy, I’ll gush about him on here too.

The Ideal Blogger-Reader Relationship

If I have any choice about it, I don’t want to be the lone voice echoing inside some endless cavern. I’d love to hear your opinions on what I write; criticism (provided it’s constructive); suggestions for future books; book news and gossip; random stories, and anything else you feel like typing in the comments section. Consider this blog a modern, almost entirely democratic version of the Roman Senate – without that whole ‘betrayal of Caesar’ thing…

A Final Confession

To tell you the truth I was a little nervous, writing this first post. It’s a lot of pressure, particularly as I want to be the best blog hostess I can be. I needn’t have worried – if you’ve ventured here in the first place, it’s likely that you love books just as much as I do.

I think we’re going to get along just fine.

Interview With KATE FORSYTH

I remember being in Year Six and standing in my best friend’s room. I’d been left alone for some reason. Naturally, I started snooping, and it wasn’t long until my eyes fell on a book with a silver spine and a dragon on the cover sitting, with a bookmark splitting its side, on his nightstand. My friend was reading a fantasy book? I approached said book, I couldn’t believe my luck. Finally, I had something to return serve with during witty banter. When he mentioned my love for creative writing, I could reply with, ‘Yes, but you read fantasy books.’

Being 11, there was only one way to react to this discovery: to heap a inconceivable amount of insults on him when he returned. Return he did, and heap I did. I heaped for a good five minutes, gesturing periodically at the book on his nightstand.

He waited until I was finished. When I was content with the amount of heaping I’d done, I finished with, ‘I never thought you’d like fantasy books,’ to which he replied, ‘Kate Forsyth doesn’t write fantasy books, she writes great books. There’s a difference.’

A little corny, yes, but that’s my earliest memory of Kate Forsyth and her writing – and the book in question was Dragonclaw, the first book in her wildly successful The Witches of Eileanan series. I have to confess I haven’t read much of her work, and I was half-tempted to have my friend interview her, but then I figured, I wouldn’t be much of a blog helmer / media student if I didn’t conduct the first interview myself.

And so, without further ado, Kate Forsyth, Australia’s undisputed Queen of Fantasy…

Just how has your newest release, The Puzzle Ring, been influenced by your own Scottish heritage?

The Puzzle Ring was directly inspired by the stories by Scottish grandmother and great-aunts used to tell me when I was a little girl. They gave me a deep fascination with all things Scottish, plus a romantic imagination fed with tales of battles and feuds and brave deeds. I actually wrote a novel set in Scotland when I was 11 which was called ‘Far, Far Away’ and always longed to go there.

It has elements of historical fiction crammed in with the fantasy – how did you go about researching the novel?

I love to research. It’s reading for a purpose. I did a lot of research for this book – not just on Scottish history and folklore, but also on time travel theories and how to sleep in the snow without getting frostbite.

Who’s favourite character in The Puzzle Ring?

Apart from Hannah, my heroine, my favourite character is Linnet, the old, mysterious cook at the castle.

What are you working on now, if anything at all?

I’m writing a YA fantasy called The Wildkin’s Curse, the long-awaited sequel to The Starthorn Tree.

My godson is practically obsessed with I Am. Would you ever consider writing another picture book?

Oh yes, I’ve got lots of ideas! I just never get a chance to sit down and play with them.

Do you prefer writing for children or adults?

I like writing for both. Each age group has different problems and challenges, and gives you different rewards. It means you never get bored and your writing stays fresh and vivid (or so I hope).

Time to choose between your children… what’s your favourite book you’ve written?

Of course I love all the books I’ve written but I’m also most deeply connected to the book I’ve just written which is of course The Puzzle Ring.

What’s the most annoying question you’re asked in interviews?

My favourite book … 😛

… And the most frustrating thing about being a writer?

How long it takes to actually write a book! If only I could write as fast as I think …

If you could claim any other writer’s work as your own, whose would it be?

Philip Pullman’s.

The Puzzle Ring by Kate Forsyth
Thirteen-year-old Hannah discovers her family was cursed long ago. The only way to break the curse is to find the four lost quarters of the mysterious puzzle ring… To do this, Hannah must go back in time to the last tumultuous days of Mary, Queen of Scots, a time when witches were burnt, queens were betrayed and wild magic still stalked the land…

The Puzzle Ring is part of May’s giveaway prize pack. Complete the entry form HERE for your chance to win. Entries close 31 May, 2009.