Top Ten Tuesday: Opening Lines

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together.


Oh that famous advice for aspiring writers: the first line, the bait, the lure with which to hook your readers for the next 300, 500 or 1,000 pages. I’m not entirely sure whether I agree with it as advice – it has generated a few kooky and self-conscious examples perhaps – and surely we readers give more than a line, a paragraph, a page before making a decision…

Whilst I want to avoid the classics – there are so many lists (The Independent did one here) of gripping opening lines from Rebecca to The Go-Between, Slaughterhouse Five to A Tale of Two Cities, the inevitable The Catcher in the Rye to I Capture the Castle – that I don’t want to simply reguritate those tired names. But there is one that just cannot be ignored before I begin the list proper…

Call me Ishmael.

Is that even the first line of the novel? It is preceded by the musings of both the Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School –

“The pale Usher—threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now. He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world. He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.”

It is however, so iconic an opening! And so beautifully evocative.

No wonder Patrick Ness opened his And The Ocean Was Our Sky – and inverted Moby Dick with “Call me Bathsheba.”


Another variant on Moby Dick, in Railsea, China Mieville reimagines the ocean as a semi-permeable earth populated by vast subterranean creatures, traversed by train tracks on which ride a multitude of trains.

And what an opening line!

And it continues just as powerfully:

“There he stands, swaying as utterly as any windblown sapling. He is quite, quite red. If only that were paint! Around each of his feet the red puddles; his clothes, whatever colour they were once, are now a thickening scarlet; his hair is stiff & drenched.”

Last night Maren dreamt a whale beached itself on the rocks outside her house.

Kiran Millwood Hargraves’ wonderful novel, The Mercies, is dominated by the dream with which it opens – a somewhat oddly prophetic dream for a character who generally resists superstition.

“She climbed down the cliff to its heaving body and rested her eye against its eye, wrapped her arms across the great stinking swell. There was nothing she could do for it but this.

“The men came scrambling down the black rock like dark, swift insects, glinting and hard-bodied with blades and scythes. They began to swing and cut before the whale was even dead.”

And another piece of advice to wannabe writers is to avoid starting with a dream sequence…

Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.

The Vegetarian is an unsettling and unnerving novel which has stayed in my mind for a long time. Ostensibly simple in terms of its plot – a woman chooses to become vegetarian – but the novel is so evocative and powerful….

“Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her. Middling height; bobbed hair neither long nor short; jaundiced, sickly-looking skin; somewhat prominent cheekbones; her timid, sallow aspect told me all I needed to know. As she came up to the table where I was waiting, I couldn’t help but notice her shoes—the plainest black shoes imaginable. And that walk of hers—neither fast nor slow, striding nor mincing.”

His children are falling from the sky.

Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy is exquisite! But the opening of the second novel, Bring Up The Bodies is shockingly good.

They aren’t Thomas Cromwell’s children, just falcons named after them!

“He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air. She is silent when she takes her prey, silent as she glides to his fist. But the sounds she makes then, the rustle of feathers and the creak, the sigh and riffle of pinion, the small cluck-cluck from her throat, these are sounds of recognition, intimate, daughterly, almost disapproving. Her breast is gore-streaked and flesh clings to her claws.”

In the stirrups now… Wish you were here…

No, the opening of Queenie has nothing equestrian about it! Candice Carty-Williams’ novel revels in the intimate as she continues…

“I locked my phone and carried on looking at the ceiling before unlocking it and sending a follow-up “xx.” That would prove to Tom that I wasn’t as emotionally detached as he accuses me of being.

““Can you just bring your bottom riiiiight to the edge of the exam table?” the doctor asked as I inched myself down closer to her face. Honestly, I’ve no idea how they do it.

““Deep breath, please!” she said a bit too cheerfully, and with no further warning inserted what felt like the world’s least ergonomic dildo into me and moved it around like a joystick.”

The circus arrives without warning.

Whole realms of fantasy and folklore and myth is encapsulated in that opening line. And The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is as beautiful and haunting and evocative as that first line promises.

“No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.

“The towering tents are striped in white and black, no golds and crimsons to be seen. No color at all, save for the neighboring trees and the grass of the surrounding fields. Black-and-white stripes on grey sky; countless tents of varying shapes and sizes, with an elaborate wrought-iron fence encasing them in a colorless world.”

The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.

And speaking of wonderful and evocative arrivals, the opening of A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness is just sublime. That little “As they do.” is perfectly judged.

“Conor was awake when it came.

“He’d had a nightmare. Well, not a nightmare. The nightmare. The one he’d been having a lot lately. The one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming. The one with the hands slipping from his grasp, no matter how hard he tried to hold on. The one that always ended with–”

An absolute gut-wrenchingly emotional read

There shouldn’t be any monsters left in Lucille.

Akwaeke Emezi’s Pet is absolutely sublime – otherworldly hunters hauling themselves out of paintings, drawn by blood, to hunt the monsters that shouldn’t exist…

An important and visceral read.

“The city used to have them, of course—what city didn’t? They used to be everywhere, thick in the air and offices, in the streets and in people’s own homes. They used to be the police and teachers and judges and even the mayor; yeah, the mayor used to be a monster. Lucille has a different mayor now. This mayor is an angel; the last couple of mayors have all been angels. Not like a from-heaven, not-quite-real type of angel but a from-behind-and-inside-and-in-front-of-the-revolution, therefore-very-real type of angel.”

In the beginning there was a river.

Why do so many of these chocies that resonate with me seem to have biblical, mythic resonances…?

Okri’s The Famished Road has stayed with me for years – the haunting tale of Azaro, an abiku who refuses to leave the land of the living for the spirit world…

“The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.

“In that land of beginnings spirits mingled with the unborn. We could assume numerous forms. Many of us were birds. We knew no boundaries. There was much feasting, playing, and sorrowing. We feasted much because of the beautiful terrors of eternity. We played much because we were free. And we sorrowed much because there were always those amongst us who had just returned from the world of the Living.”

Dead Papa Toothwort wakes from his standing nap an acre wide and scrapes off dream dregs of bitumen glistening thick with liquid globs of litter.

Lanny is such a remarkable novel – and Porter does something wonderful with voices, taking the natural speech around the village and turning them into something lyrical, something which summons and enriches the mythic, folkloric Dead Papa Toothwort…

“He lies down to hear hymns of the earth (there are none, so he hums), then he shrinks, cuts himself a mouth with a rusted ring pull and sucks up a wet skin of acid-rich mulch and fruity detritivores. He splits and wobbles, divides and reassembles, coughs up a plastic pot and a petrified condom, briefly pauses as a smashed fibreglass bath, stumbles and rips off the mask, feels his face and finds it made of long-buried tannic acid bottles. Victorian rubbish.”

I am sure that there are a wealth of other novels with equally stunning and intriguing and mysterious and evocative first lines, but these are the ones which stuck in my mind as I was compiling the list… and an opening line that sticks is, literally, doing its job right!

I look forward to reading you favourite first lines – please do drop by and comment!

Again, a David Mitchell book is an event, and a thing of beauty! But the music industry is not my natural setting and again I was caught between this and another book – Daisy Jones and the Six in this case – and Daisy Jones was read first. This time, because it was nominated on a book club I was part of.

Bonus: The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch

They say that the Thorn of Camorr can beat anyone in a fight. They say he steals from the rich and gives to the poor. They say he’s part man, part myth, and mostly street-corner rumor. And they are wrong on every count.

Only averagely tall, slender, and god-awful with a sword, Locke Lamora is the fabled Thorn, and the greatest weapons at his disposal are his wit and cunning. He steals from the rich – they’re the only ones worth stealing from – but the poor can go steal for themselves. What Locke cons, wheedles and tricks into his possession is strictly for him and his band of fellow con-artists and thieves: the Gentleman Bastards.

This one has been on my TBR for years. Literally years. I have heard nothing but praise for it, but so far have never quite got around to reading it! Go figure!

So, there we go: a range of books that I got in 2020 – save for the Scott Lynch – and do regret not reading during the year. Is regret the right word? Probably not to be honest: I do not regret the reading that I did do last year at all. But these are books that I would like to find time to catch up with this year – before prize season hits us again!

Pop in the comments below your thoughts on these – maybe let me know which I should read first!


  • June 2: Books that Give Off Summer Vibes (or winter if you live in the southern hemisphere) (submitted by Kristin @ Lukten av Trykksverte)
  • June 9: Books I’ve Added to my TBR and Forgotten Why (stolen from Louise @ Foxes & Fairy Tales)
  • June 16: Books on My Summer 2020 TBR (or winter if you’re in the southern hemisphere)
  • June 23: Top Ten Tuesday Turns 10! Option 1: pick a past TTT topic you’ve done and re-do/update it (Perhaps you’d remove certain books you put on the list back when you first wrote it, or perhaps you have 10 MORE books you’d add to that list now. You could also re-visit TBR posts, whether seasonal or series you need to finish, etc., and tell us if you’ve read them yet or not. Any variation of this idea works. Feel free to be creative.) Option 2: pick a past TTT topic you wish you’d done, but didn’t get a chance to do (the list of topics is below).
  • June 30: Most Anticipated Releases for the Second Half of 2020

30 thoughts on “Top Ten Tuesday: Opening Lines”

  1. Wow, this is an amazing list, so many great lines! I especially love The Vegetarian, A Monster Calls and Bring up the Bodies.

    Liked by 1 person

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