It Was the Best of Lines, It Was the Worst of Lines – May 18, 2021

There once lived, at a series of temporary addresses across the United
States of America, a traveling man of Indian origin, advancing years and retreating mental powers, who, on account of his love for mindless television, had spent far too much of life in the yellow light of tawdry motel rooms watching an excess of it, and had suffered a peculiar form of brain damage as a result.

Salman Rushdie, Quichotte                                                                      

Readers:  “Hey, writer person, we thought you only liked short first lines!” 

Writer person: “Nah, who told you that?”   

It’s all in the execution, you see.  It’s just so easy (and tempting) to ruin an introductory line by packing it full willy-nilly, but here’s the thing we mustn’t forget.  On the other side of however, there are lengthy beauties like the one above by Mr. Rushdie.  Sublimely well-executed, rich and delicious.  As detailed and meticulously constructed as a Da Vinci drawing, this lovely thing is seamless and not a word is wasted.  Even the formal sounding “United States of America” appears as completely essential to the piece.  Yes, there’s a good deal of information here, actually, but it is not being asked to do double duty and advance the story.  That is not its job.  Rather, it is generative – producing question after question in the reader’s mind and that irresistible pull – read the book, read the book, read the book.  The subject matter is delightfully quirky, but that sentence is smooth as silk.  Hats off to an artist.       

It Was the Best of Lines, It Was the Worst of Lines – October 4, 2019

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The only food I had was the three pieces of brown bread – which tasted of the outdoor oven where they had been made – and a cookie I’d stolen.”

Keele Burgin, Wholly Unravelled:  A Memoir

Catch me.  My knees are gonna buckle.  This sentence is as simple as a Shaker chair and almost as beautiful.  I like it more and more every time I read it.  You see, this line is a poem – in and of itself, sufficient to stand on its own merit.  These words alone are lovely:  “…three pieces of brown bread….”.  Alliterative, looks good on the page, tingles on the lips.  Three pieces of brown bread.  And three is exactly right, isn’t it?  Try another number there.  Doesn’t work as well, does it?  Who knew?

As a first line you ask, how does it work as a first line?  Like a question mark; it works like a twenty-eight word question mark.  Stop reading after that?  No way.  You got me.

I am serious as a heart attack, and, no, I am not just hungry!  Speaking of hungry, what about the stolen cookie?  It’s all part of the poetry, I tells ya, and the question mark.  That cookie puts the dot on the question mark.  But here’s my theory about cookies in general.  You should eat every cookie like you stole it.  Cookies are so good they should all be illegal.  Maybe I am hungry.

It Was the Best of Lines, It Was the Worst of Lines – July 16, 2019

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“Celeste Jones had kissed so many frogs looking for her prince, she should have turned green and grown warts on her lips.”

Sheila Roberts, The Summer Retreat

I don’t think I’ll ever get over this one.  It may leave me scarred for life, this first line gone horribly wrong.  We were doing just fine through “green”.  Period.  Just a period or, if you want, maybe “and croaked” or “and hopped”.  Probably not “and ate flies”.  It’s marginally better, but risky.   It could get you almost back to where you landed in the first place.

Folks, I’m sorry, and I’m not saying this isn’t funny, but you know how it is.  Sometimes when you’re among friends or out with the girls (or the boys), you say something gross that gets the big yucks.  I mean, they really fall out.  Somebody thinks about it five minutes later, and they’re losing it again.  Trust me though, there are those types of funny that cannot be counted on to come across well in print.  I can hear my snarky self saying something like this to get a laugh.  Unfortunately, in writing, I saw the horror of it.

I haven’t read the book at this time, and this is not meant to reflect in any way on Sheila Robert’s work, so please be fair.  Simply my observations on a single line, and one line is not a book.

Going to the drugstore now for some Compound W.

It Was the Best of Lines, It Was the Worst of Lines – April 8, 2019

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“The dog is late, and I’m wearing pajamas made from the same material as Handi Wipes, which is reason enough for me to wish I were dead.”

          Binnie Kirshenbaum, Rabbits for Food.

Since the last Best of Lines was about a train called the Yellow Dog, you’re probably figuring that, if there’s “dog” in it, I’m there.  And you are so right.  But, no.  This line is such an unlikely combination of imponderables with all of them, every one, leading to, guess what………..pondering.  Ta damn da.

The dog is late.  A dog with an appointment?  Dogs don’t know time.  All dogs know is “supper time, supper time, sup-sup-supper time”.  I thought immediately of Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid series and that delightful canine Oberon, who’s hilarious and hopelessly muddled on the subject of time.  Dogs just don’t get it.  So what’s this with the non-punctual pup?

Moving on, Handi Wipes pajamas suggests disposable, maybe institutional, but I don’t know.  Doesn’t sound like something one would choose, though.  Then the speaker wishes to be dead.  So not good.  Tough times, unfortunate circumstances, perhaps even the edge of the abyss?  I WANT TO KNOW!  No details, no weather report, no trees or flowers, no location, no characters introduced or described.  This line is not about filling us in; it does not front load; rather, it intrigues.  We have no clue whether this individual is male or female, and we know absolutely nothing about that tardy dog, but, by golly, WE WANT TO KNOW!  Don’t we?

Of course, all this pondering occurs simultaneously with the reading of the sentence, in the blink of an eye, half a blink, and we simply read on, not even aware that we have pondered.  We read on because we want to know.  This tantalizing book’s not out yet (advance reader copy), but I’m going to read it (and post a review, of course), and you know why.  Because I…………everybody, let me hear you say it!  Louder!  In the meantime, here’s a reader’s tip.  If you don’t know the Iron Druid series and Oberon, literary love of my life, Kevin Hearne’s light-hearted fantasy series is great good fun.

It Was the Best of Lines, It Was the Worst of Lines – March 14, 2019

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“The nickname of the train was the Yellow Dog.” 

Eudora Welty, Delta Wedding.

A train going…..somewhere.  A puffing steam engine, maybe.  Sounds like it, doesn’t it?  Yeah, I think so.  A sleek diesel couldn’t be the Yellow Dog.  Is it really yellow?  Well, it makes me happy to see it that way.  Why are we interested in this train?  Who’s on it?  So we read a few more words…..nine year old Laura McRaven traveling alone.  Alone?  Where’s she going?  And we read a little bit more.  To visit her mother’s people at Shellmound.  Hmmm.  And when she gets there?  “Poor Laura little motherless girl…”  You see that Yellow Dog chugging way across the delta there?  That train, the Yellow Dog, in that tiny vignette of an opening line will chug you right into this beautiful book.  An opening line that knows its job.

And why wouldn’t it?  Miss Eudora walked on water.  If you don’t know her brilliant, deceptively simple work, there’s genius out there waiting for you.  Best book on becoming a writer?  One Writer’s Beginnings.  Eudora Welty.  Short stories?  Oh my goodness, lose yourself.  As for me, Delta Wedding is one of the very few books I’ve read more than once and will read again….because of the train nicknamed the Yellow Dog.

It Was the Best of Lines, It Was the Worst of Lines – February 26, 2019

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“A man was staring at her in the oral care aisle.  A gorgeous, make-your-ovaries-shiver man.”

RaeAnne Thayne, The Cliff House

OK, I know that’s two lines, but one is a fragment, and it could just as easily be one if you changed the period to a comma.  Either way, it’s just awful.  A man who makes your ovaries shiver?  Does that call for medical intervention?  Oh, yes, there are gorgeous men.  I’ve seen ‘em.  Maybe, on a good day, more than one.  But make your ovaries shiver?  Further, if a man is staring at me in the oral care aisle, I’d probably beat feet out of there.  After all, Ted Bundy was nice looking, too.

In the third line, we learn that “Daisy Davenport McClure” is the chick with the shivering ovaries.  Precious.  In my experience, introducing a female character this early on with all three names is inauspicious from a literary perspective.  Then, in the very next line we’re hit with “discombobulated” and in the line after that “Dark, wavy-haired, green-eyed…”.  “Uncle”, I cried and tapped out.

Ms. Thayne and all your satisfied readers, if I’ve done an injustice, I apologize.  Perhaps The Cliff House is a tongue-in-cheek riot of a good read and my loss for not reading on.  However, heartbeats are finite, and readers must decide early on where they want to spend theirs.  I had to leave Daisy and that green-eyed man for others.  Sorry.

It Was the Best of Line, It Was the Worst of Lines – January 31, 2019

edgar allan poe by the terrible designer designer,terrible,edgar,allan,the,poe,by GIF

“True! nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?”

Edgar A. Poe.  “The Tell-Tale Heart”

Damn, that’s good, and at the moment I’m into lines that work, that do the job.  This one surely does that.  We’ve all read the story, right, and do you know why?  Mainly because teenagers are always eager to read for a good case of the heebie-jeebies or, more likely, only if they’re ensured a good case of the heebie-jeebies.  This famous line is as good a guarantee as you’ll get.  I can’t read it without tensing up, can you?  Oh, what is up with this person?  What.  Is.  Up?  Nervous?  Aren’t you feeling a little anxious yourself?  A lot?  If I had two Xanax, I’d give you one.


It Was the Best of Lines, It Was the Worst of Lines – January 25, 2019

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“My husband brought a date to our divorce.”  —  Swimming for Sunlight       Allie Larkin

In reviewing  Swimming for Sunlight , I mentioned that the first line led me to read this novel, and there you have that line.  Now I’m not putting this opener up as a candidate for the best of lines, but it is darn good and does its job so well.   What I want to praise here is brevity.  It is short, short, short.   We do not need to know that her eyes are swimming with hot, bitter tears and that they are the blue of a sapphire sea.   We do not need to know that her husband wore alligator boots,  stood tall on long, lean legs and that his dark chest hair curled from the open collar of his chambray shirt  as her world crumbled around her.  No, we do not.  Only eight words to get the job done.   We know that this lady is starting over; we know that her husband is a dirty rat bastard; we know this book is not going to take itself too seriously.  Eight short words.

Hey, just “Call me Ishmael.”

It Was the Best of Lines, It Was the Worst of Lines: Memorable and Not-So-Memorable First Lines in Literature – August 9, 2016

It Was the Best of Lines, It Was the Worst of Lines is a new feature which I hope will appear from time to time here on a day in the (reading) life.  I’ll be spotlighting what I think are some worthwhile, and some dismal, first lines from books and short stories as I come across them, sometimes with my accolades or scathing commentary, as appropriate.  Other times I may let the lines just speak for themselves.  Hope you enjoy!  Comments and opinions, for and against (it’s a free country, y’all), are always welcomed as long as we all stay respectful.

Vampire castle

“When Elena told people she was a vampire hunter, their first reaction was an inevitable gasp, followed by, ‘You go around sticking those sharp stakes in their evil putrid hearts?'”

Nalini Singh, Angel’s Blood.

Ugh.  I know I’m probably going to catch some heat from Nalini Singh’s fans and paranormal romance (i.e., bandwagon lit.) readers, but come on peeps!  This isn’t exactly the kind of sentence that inspires one to bated breath and the anticipation of what’s to come.  Trite, trite, trite, banal, banal, banal, and just all-around lazy, boring writing.  “You go around sticking those sharp stakes in their evil putrid hearts?” sounds like crappy dialogue from a Buffy the Vampire Slayer rip-off.

Now, granted, I only read the first line (and a few more in the next paragraph where Singh’s character refers to “the idiot fifteen-century storyteller who’d made up that [staking] tale in the first place”), so maybe Angel’s Blood is meant to be campy fun.  I wouldn’t know though because I couldn’t get past those initial paragraphs.  If you want campy bloodsuckers, Charlaine Harris does it much better.

I’m not sure what 15th century “idiot” Singh’s referring to (the first literary appearance of the vampire is widely credited to John Polidori’s 1819 short story, “The Vampyre”, although vampire-like beings can be found in folklore all the way back to ancient times), but for my money Bram Stoker and, to a lesser degree, Anne Rice, did vamps best and darkest.  And dark is the only way a vampire should be (none of those sparkly Twilight chaps for me, thanks).  Stoker is, well . . . Stoker.  ‘Nuff said.  And Anne Rice, for all her verbosity and tendency toward melodrama, created a character in Lestat that has endured for years and set the standard for vampire assuredness and cockiness (and yes, Tom Cruise did get it right in the movie, and I’m no Cruise fan).