Friday, June 3, 2011

The point of no return

Life is busy. We don't have time to slog through books that don't appeal to us in some way (entertaining, informative, controversial, classic, etc). I will pass on a book if it doesn't grip me by three chapters (unless it's been highly recommended).

How does a book grip me, take me past that point of no return? I'm sure it's different for everyone, but I'm going to start analyzing some possibilities, starting with Falling Under, by Gwen Hayes, and hopefully learn something for my own writing.

Falling Under is a new YA paranormal release that triggers these words: British/Californian collision, razor-swipe writing, four-wheel drive plot, five-alarm characterization, and thrumming romantic tension that will make you feel like a guitar string being played by an expert. Trust me, the blurb for this book does not do it justice.

I read the first chapter on-line and ordered the book about 2.5 seconds after finishing it. If it had been in stock at my local bookstore, I would have packed up all the kids and gone down to buy it immediately. When it showed up two days later, I read it in one sitting (making sure I remembered to feed the kids and pets first, to minimize interruption).

The point of no return for me was  near the end of Chapter 1:
We had to wait for a pack of sneetches [Dr Suess reference], several of them in cheerleader uniforms, to file past our table. As per their social custom, they made no eye contact with those of us without stars upon thars.
When one of the varsity basketball players tried to pass without even seeing us, Donny drew the line. "Hey, Bill, did I ever tell you how much it meant to me that you made sure my needs were still met that one time you couldn't get it up? That makes you a real gentlemen."

...He grunted, someone muttered, "Bitch" and all was right in our world.
A combination of a classic Suess reference, sassing the popular crowd, and that perfect voicy ending "all was right in our world"  made me grin and say, "I'm already recommending this book."

So that was the "point" for me. But in order for a point-of-no-return to work I think a first chapter needs some good foundational stuff, too. Like one or two intriguing first sentences:

Everything changed the night I saw the burning man fall from the sky.
I'd been reading well past a reasonable hour, the white eyelet quilt tented over my iPhone to block any escaping light even though my father was already tucked away in bed dreaming of new ways to make me safer.
I highlighted the parts that add tension and make me curious. Five highlights in two sentences. Impressive. Now here is a test for anyone else who loves YA: the white eyelet reference? Did you get that? Kudos if you know what other famous first sentence that's a reference to.

A second first-chapter must: voice. Theia is a Brit transplanted in California. She's got a slightly formal British voice that's just a little self-deprecating:
Father preferred I not spend much time with Donny. Which, when I was being honest with myself, I realized was part of the appeal. Donny was irreverent and maybe a little wild.
A third first chapter must: the reader must identify with, or better yet bond with the main character. Theia's dad is controlling to the point of obsession. It's her birthday, but also the day of her mother's death (her mother died giving birth to her) which makes it hard to celebrate. She doesn't fit in at school. Things that make you sympathetic for her. But the first chapter has to also make you care, not just sympathize. Where's the "save the cat" moment? Theia is the only one present when a total stranger dies on her front lawn. She tries to help him, and when she realizes she can't - his whole body has been burn beyond recognition - she stays at his side and talks him through his last moments.

Okay, enough first chapter analysis. A bit more rave about the rest of the book (Spoiler free). For a longer and more detailed version, see my review on Goodreads.

There is so much quotable stuff from this book. Beautiful and at times gritty, almost always realistic even during its most far-out fantasy sequences. And the BEST romantic tension I HAVE EVER READ. It leaves you breathless in new ways.

The characters are very memorable, even Theia's emotionally corseted father. Her two best friends, Ame and Donnatello (Donny) are perfect opposites and really make this book delightful with their strong voices, opinions, vulnerabilities, and outrageous moments.

Theia, the main character, is a neat mix of naivete, innocence, longing, delightfully out-of-place British mannerisms in California, loneliness, and just enough rebellion and quirks to make her interesting. Haden is the epitome of a tortured soul - which could be cliche, but he's not. One hint related to Haden - he's the reason why "five-alarm characterization" came to mind in my description.

Then there is Madame Varnie - oh VARNIE!!!! - oh my gosh the most original fortune-teller/psychic you will ever meet!! A wonderful example of how this book, even though it totally capitalizes on the Twilight tropes, is also refreshingly original and unexpected.

The ending leaves plenty of open space for a sequel, but no gasping cliff-hanger: everything was tied up really well AND with one of those wonderful unexpected twists that make you go, "No way!!! How is that going to work????" but all the groundwork was so carefully laid that it really does work.

Can you think of a point of no return moment, in a recent (or favorite) read?  Or what words trigger when you think of a recent or favorite book?

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