July 2020’s Page Turner

Page Turners

Page Turners

by Val Tobin

Agents and editors will often decide whether a book is for them by reading the first page of a manuscript. Many readers also decide to buy a book based on that critical first-page sample. Each month I post the first page of a book and you can vote on whether or not you’d read the book based on the sample.

After you vote, I’ll let you know the title of the book, my reaction to the sample, and why I’d keep reading or why I’d put it down. The goal is to have fun while we explore the beginnings of a variety of books and what compels readers to keep reading.

While I won’t divulge the title or author until you’ve read the piece, I will include the genre and any preliminary items (for example, quotes) you’d see when opening the book on your own.

NOTE: Set aside your preference for or against any specific genre and just focus on the writing. Does it compel you to turn the page and find out what comes next? Base your decision to turn the page on the excerpt’s writing alone.

Today’s Excerpt

Genre: Historical Fiction

Chapter One

nurse

to suckle an infant

to bring up a child

to take care of the sick

The journey was no worse than she expected. A train from London to Liverpool; the steam packet overnight to Dublin; a slow Sunday train west to a town called Athlone.

A driver was waiting. “Mrs. Wright?”

Lib had known many Irishmen, soldiers. But that was some years ago, so her ear strained now to make out the driver’s words.

He carried her trunk to what he called the jaunting car. An Irish misnomer; nothing jaunty about this bare cart. Lib settled herself on the single bench down the middle, her boots hanging closer to the right-hand wheel than she liked. She put up her steel-frame umbrella against the drizzle. This was better than the stuffy train, at least.

On the other side of the bench, slouching so his back almost touched hers, the driver flicked his whip. “Go on, now!”

The shaggy pony stirred.

The few people on the macadamised road out of Athlone seemed wan, which Lib attributed to the infamous diet of potatoes and little else. Perhaps that was responsible for the driver’s missing teeth, too.

He made some remark about the dead.

“I beg your pardon?”

“The dead centre, ma’am.”

Lib waited, braced against the juddering of the cart.

He pointed down. “We’re in the exact middle of the country here.”

Flat fields striped with dark foliage. Sheets of reddish-brown …

Would you turn the page? Vote now.

Would you turn the page?

Today’s Book Revealed

Today’s book is The Wonder by Emma Donoghue.

Blurb from Amazon

The Wonder by Emma Donaghue

The Wonder by Emma Donaghue

SCOTIABANK GILLER PRIZE FINALIST

#1 NATIONAL BESTSELLER

“Heartbreaking and transcendent.” —The New York Times

The latest masterpiece from the Man Booker Prize–shortlisted author of Room

In 1850s Ireland a village is baffled by young Anna O’Donnell’s fast. The girl appears to be thriving after months without food, and the story of this “wonder” has reached fever pitch. Tourists flock to the O’Donnell family’s cabin, and a journalist is sent to cover the sensational story. Enter Lib, an English nurse trained by Florence Nightingale, who is hired to keep watch over Anna for two weeks to determine whether or not the girl is a fraud. As Anna deteriorates, Lib finds herself responsible not just for the care of a child, but for getting to the root of why the girl may actually be the victim of murder in slow motion.

Written with all the spare and propulsive tension that made Room a bestseller, The Wonder is a tale of two strangers who will transform each other’s lives, a powerful psychological thriller and a story of love pitted against evil in its many masks.

“Beautifully moody with the taut pace of a thriller, The Wonder grapples with the potency of love, both human and divine.” —Chatelaine

Would I Turn the Page?

No. Based on that one-page excerpt, I wouldn’t turn the page.

The definition of “nurse” is a great hook, but the writing style isn’t for me. She uses three semicolons on that one page. Sentence fragments. (See what I did there?)

However, I did read the whole book, finding enough in the story to keep me going. I thought the novel was well structured, and I found the historical context fascinating. But, while I learned a lot from the work, I had to constantly battle an irritation with the prose.

I didn’t have a good feeling about the book to begin with. I’d tried to read Emma Donoghue’s Room once and couldn’t get far because of the writing style. Sure, I understand the POV was that of a child of five, so she chose the creative tactic of writing as if we were viewing everything from his eyes and at his level of understanding. But it bugged me to the point where I had to stop reading because it wasn’t enjoyable.

I’ve slogged through some unenjoyable literary fiction in the past because I considered it important enough to do it—Anna Karenina comes to mind—but Room didn’t ring that bell for me. That’s why when someone selected The Wonder as one of the books to read in the book club to which I belong, I dreaded having to read it. I assured myself that the author wouldn’t have another book from the POV of a five-year-old, but even so, I worried I’d dislike it. That means I started off reading The Wonder with trepidation and a high level of prejudice against the book.

Then I hit all those semicolons and sentence fragments, and it was all I could do to keep reading. If this hadn’t been a selection for my book club, I might have given up. Here’s a sample that irked me enough I added it to my book club notes: “Murky-toned and taken before the son had emigrated. Rosaleen O’Donnell, like some imposing totem.”

There’s a lot of that. Just discussing it here reminds me of the blood-pressure-raising experience my inner editor had while reading this book. I cursed a lot, screaming silently at the author to just add the damn verbs.

Clearly, I found this book triggering—not so much the subject matter, though that in itself was difficult—but the writing style, and that illustrates once more how subjective the reading experience is. My fellow book club members never noticed the issues that grated on my nerves and most of them enjoyed the read.

What do you think?

Does this passage from The Wonder intrigue you? Does it make you want to turn the page and continue reading? Will you run out now and buy the book? Borrow it?

Val Tobin writes speculative fiction and searches the world over for the perfect butter tart. Her home is in Newmarket, Ontario, where she enjoys writing, reading, and talking about writing and reading.

2 comments Write a comment

  1. No, I would not turn the page. There is not enough in it to pull me forward. My interest is turned off with the use of modified present tense verbs, which is a trap for writers.

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