Story Starters #7: The Fellowship of the Ring

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

Good morning, everyone, and happy March! This month marks my first anniversary of blogging here at The Story Scientist, and I thought I’d recall where I began, with a book quote analysis of The Fellowship of the Ring. Today, I have rather less of the book to analyze for you all, since the first paragraph is only one sentence, albeit a long one. So let’s analyze!

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This is the version that I have.
  • When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton. There’s quite a bit going on in just this one sentence. Firstly, we start with the character of Bilbo Baggins, which makes a good transition into The Lord of the Rings for those who have read The Hobbit. The mention of his “eleventy-first birthday” sets the time of the story as many years after the events of The Hobbit, and the mention of talk and excitement indicates that Bilbo has developed a reputation, which is developed in the next paragraph. And what better way to hook a reader than with talk and excitement? We know something’s going to happen, and setting this sentence as its own entire paragraph gives us a moment to take that in before moving on.

Today’s has been a very short analysis, but really, I love Tolkien (as you may have noticed by my having written two other posts about his books–do check them out if you haven’t read them). And so I leave you until next week.

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Goodbye!

What do you think? Have you read The Fellowship of the Ring? (If not, why on earth–I mean, I highly recommend it.) What do you think of its beginning? Are you hooked by this sentence? Do you have anything to add to my analysis? Tell me in the comments!

My Life This February: In Which College Takes Over My Life

Hello, all! It’s the last Saturday of the month, so here I am as usual with my monthly round-up. February was kind of a crazy month, and looks like it will be for the last four days as well. Here’s what happened to me this month.

I am now well into my fourth semester of college (I’m so far along! How is this even happening?). I can’t remember if I mentioned this last month, but this semester, I am taking Organic Chemistry II, Physics II, Evolutionary Genetics of Plants, and Genetics Lab. I’m enjoying all of those except for physics, which I’m really excited to be done with, but they make my schedule really insane, especially combined with working in the lab. I really enjoy the lab, though; it’s really relaxing to just go for a little while and count rice plants. Speaking of which, I’m planting rice! It’s so cool. I’m also going to start doing experiments and analyses next month, which is really exciting. So the moral of the story is, my research is coming right along, and I love it, but it’s taking up a lot of time.

Which leads me to the state of my writing right now. You know how they say you should write every day in order to be a successful author? Yep, I’m really failing that lately. Yesterday, though, I did add about 400 words to a new scene in Circle of Fire while I was waiting for class to start, so that was a nice little creative escape. I also listen to music that inspires me for my books whenever I can. But I haven’t worked on This Hidden Darkness, the new book I’m outlining, hardly at all, at least not that I can remember. It has been a very busy month.

Well, that’s my short wrap-up for the month! Sorry it was a bit scatterbrained.

How was your month? Are you in school, too? How is your semester going? Have you done much writing this month? Make any progress on your projects? Anybody else out there doing research? Tell me in the comments!

What I’m Reading: Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

Good morning! First, a quick note about scheduling. This post was supposed to go up this past Saturday, but I unfortunately got sick and couldn’t finish it in time. Sorry for that little slide in regular scheduling! Now on to the review.

Originally what caught my attention about Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas was the title and the striking cover. Then, since it’s such a popular book, I read a lot of contrasting reviews of it on Goodreads, and Victoria Howell’s review got me even more curious. So I read it last month to decide what I thought of it, and the winner is . . . mixed feelings! Here’s my full review.

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Information for Readers
Genre: Fantasy
Age level: YA–I’d say 16 and up. See notes about content.
Content? Quite a lot: violence, mild swearing, fairly graphic descriptions of dead bodies, and a fair bit of innuendo.
The Story: After a brutal year in forced labor, eighteen-year-old notorious assassin Celaena Sardothien is selected as a competitor for King’s Champion. After each test, contestants are eliminated–and some start dying gruesome deaths in between. Celaena, Crown Prince Dorian Havilliard, and Captain of the Guard Chaol Westfall must figure out who (or what) is behind the deaths before she becomes next on the hit list.
This was an interesting and suspenseful storyline with a lot going on. The subplot of the love triangle held my interest as well, though it was a bit stereotypical.
The Characters: There were rather a lot of these, between the contestants (of some of whom it was said “there were five soldiers” or whatever, but still), some of the noble sponsors, a ghost queen, the living king and his minions, a visiting princess, and of course, Celaena, Dorian, and Chaol. It could be a little confusing at times, but I was mostly able to keep track of them. Generally, I liked Nox, Nehemia, and Chaol the best; Chaol was easily my favorite.
A lot of the reviews I read differed in their opinions of Celaena, and on reading this book, I can see why. There’s a lot going on within her character. She’s an assassin who lost her parents at a young age, likes to read and play piano, and is a kick-butt heroine but loves clothes and candy. I guess all the contradictions and complexities made her realistic and multidimensional, but at times, it felt a little forced. I did like the way she grew over the course of the book, from thinking she couldn’t care for anybody at the castle and she’d run away at the first opportunity to walking away from that opportunity because she’d grown to care for Dorian and Chaol. I think that was a nice arc. I guess I liked her, but she wasn’t my favorite lead character ever.
I can say something similar for Dorian, except I liked him less. Upon reflection, I feel like he’s sort of a good-looking scuzzball who happens to be a noble prince. I thought Chaol was the more worthy member of the love triangle.
The Writing: As I mentioned, there was a lot going on in this book. It was all woven together very skilfully and always kept me interested to go to the next page or chapter. The worldbuilding was also good; I liked all the political strife going on between different countries, and the fact that that played into Celaena and her friends’ characters as well; for example, Celaena’s friend Nehemia is the princess of Eyllwe, a recently conquered country, visiting to learn more about her conquerors–supposedly. And Celaena herself is not from Adarlan originally. So generally it was a well-written book.
Overall: I thought this was a pretty good book, and I enjoyed the story but felt iffy about some of the characters. I probably won’t be reading the sequels, just because there are so many other things I’d rather read and only so much time to read them. But overall, pretty good.
What do you think? Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Of the characters? Tell me in the comments!

Edible Biochemistry: The Health Benefits of Chocolate

Hello, everyone! It’s the second Saturday of the month, time for a short science post. Since Valentine’s Day is coming up on Tuesday, and chocolate is a popular gift (and who doesn’t like getting it?), I thought I’d talk a bit about some biochemistry of chocolate’s health benefits. There’s a bit of organic chemistry involved here, so bear with me.

Chocolate, even dark chocolate, which is 35-85% cocoa, is a very complex substance. Like any plant-based substance, it is “choc” full of different complex organic compounds. These include polyphenols, which are just compounds with multiple benzene rings.

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This is benzene. Each corner is a carbon with two hydrogens attached. It’s not as scary as it looks. 🙂
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This is catechin, found in chocolate. Again, each corner is a carbon. Don’t worry about the details of the structure, but do note the two benzene rings–this is what makes it a polyphenol.

 

Yay for chemistry class! Now back to chocolate. Some polyphenols found in chocolate, similar to the catechin molecule shown above, have antioxidant properties. You’ve probably heard this already; a lot of healthy foods, including blueberries as well as dark chocolate, are advertised as having antioxidants.

But what is an antioxidant? What do they do, and how is that beneficial to human health? Well, antioxidants are simply molecules that scavenge free radicals. This begs another question: what is a free radical? Free radicals, like the methyl radical below, are just chemical species that have an unpaired electron. They are highly reactive and go around stealing hydrogen atoms from other molecules, including (one of my favorites) DNA. So the punch line is that free radicals can be damaging to important biomolecules like DNA, and have thus been implicated in cancer, aging, and other human health issues.

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The methyl radical.

You can see how antioxidants, like those found in chocolate, can be beneficial to human health by removing free radicals from the body’s cells and reducing radical-induced DNA damage. So, yes, chocolate really is good for you. (Of course, it can still contain copious amounts of sugar, so the key, as with everything, is in moderation.) What a great gift for Valentine’s Day or any time!

What do you think? Do you like chocolate? Have you heard about antioxidants but wondered what they do? Tell me in the comments!

Story Starters #6: Starlighter

Blood match. The words echoed in Jason’s mind as he stood at his corner of the tourney ring and gripped the hilt of his sword. Like a beating drum, the announcer must have repeated that phrase a hundred times, as if the potential for bloodletting might whip the crowd into a frenzy.

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Hello, all! It’s the first Saturday of the month (February already!), so as is routine, I am analyzing the first paragraph of a book. Today, I have selected Starlighter by Bryan Davis, which I was delighted to get for Christmas (look for my review next month!). And without further ado, let’s analyze!

  • Blood match. The first sentence of a story always has to hook the reader (you can learn more on this blog), and in this case, it’s done perfectly. It gives us some idea of what’s going on while enticing us to learn more. It’s also a thought, so we know we’re starting with a character right from the get-go, which is not always the case. It leads right into the next sentence.
  • The words echoed in Jason’s mind as he stood at his corner of the tourney ring and gripped the hilt of his sword. Ah, here’s our point-of-view character. Just from this sentence, we can glean a bit about Jason: he’s a warrior of some sort, a swordsman, and the cadence of the words indicates his excitement; he’s probably young. (Given that this is a YA book, we’d probably already know that, but we can pick it up from the sentence, too.) We also learn about our setting and situation from this sentence: Jason is at a tourney, right in the ring, as a competitor, so this world has at least some medieval elements. If we like medieval fantasy, as I do, this encourages us to read on.
  • Like a beating drum, the announcer must have repeated that phrase a hundred times, as if the potential for bloodletting might whip the crowd into a frenzy. Here we learn more about the situation. This must be a pretty important, well-publicized tourney, if there’s a crowd. And “potential for bloodletting” raises the stakes for Jason; what if he gets hurt? It heightens interest for the reader. Finally, as with the previous sentence, we can get some of Jason’s excitement (and nerves) from this; the simile of a beating drum mirrors how Jason’s heart is probably beating faster in this situation. This wraps up the first paragraph with a quick, neat hook, character and setting introductions, and high stakes, making it a great enticement to read the rest of the book.

That’s it for me today! I’ll be back next Saturday with a science post.

What do you think? Did you notice something else about these three sentences that I didn’t cover? Have you read Starlighter? Tell me in the comments!

My Life This January: In Which I Revel in Winter Break, Visit the Sunny South, and Start Yet Another Semester

Hello, all! It’s the last Saturday of the month, so I’m here as usual chatting about my life this month. In January . . . a lot happened, to say the least. Some of the most important (and/or all-encompassing) things are listed up there in the title.

Winter break is always a joyous time, when after a semester-long drought, I return to voracious reading, sleeping in, and even (gasp!) lying around doing nothing. It is glorious. I read six books in five weeks (including Ender’s Game and The Progeny–more reviews coming soon!). I also did (pitifully small) amounts of outlining a new project, tentatively titled This Hidden Darkness, and started picking at some editing for Circle of Fire. Mostly, though, I refilled my creative juices with some art. I started with pottery and managed to make one thing before I got on a stained glass kick; my dad has had all the stuff downstairs for years, and since he got back into it, I started working on my projects from a couple years ago, too. It was great to sometimes spend the whole day downstairs cutting and grinding and being creative with glass.

Of course, I also worked over break. I continued to hold down my entry-level job, and also worked in the lab. I don’t think I mentioned last month that I changed labs; I’m now in a plant genetics/biochemistry lab where I’m going to start working on rice this semester. I’m really excited about that, and I enjoyed learning stuff like seed germination (in Petri dishes) over the break.

The major thing I did over the break, though, was fly (by myself for the first time) down to Georgia to see my best friend Olivia for a week. It was really nice, especially towards the end of the week when it warmed up to short-sleeves weather. We went a lot of cool places together, like the Georgia Aquarium, Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, and Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, where I got to meet Victoria Howell. We had lunch in Marietta at an Australian bakery, which was really cool, then went to the park and hiked up the mountain and looked at the Civil War battlefield. We don’t have many Civil War sites in New England, so that was a really cool piece of history to see. It was also a novel thing to see the snow leftover from the weekend storm on the mountain; I mean, I see quite enough of snow, but snow in Georgia was neat to experience. We also went to see the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra perform Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, which was really cool, since I haven’t been to really any kind of live music in years. And the symphony building was beautiful. Other than that, we enjoyed just hanging out, playing games, and feeding Olivia’s horses and playing with her cats. It’s always great to see a friend you haven’t seen in a while.

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And within the last three days of this month, the new semester has begun! It was supposed to start on Tuesday, but had to be delayed due to a bad snowstorm–that’s New Hampshire for you. I’ve enjoyed most of my classes so far; physics is the notable exception, since I just don’t like the subject matter. Organic chemistry, though, has two of the best teachers I’ve ever had, and of course I love my two advanced genetics classes. I have a packed schedule, though, so it’s going to be a very busy semester.

That’s pretty much it for me today. See you next week!

How was your month? Did you travel anywhere? Meet any new friends? Have you ever been to Georgia? Did you start a new semester of school? If so, what did you do over break? Have you ever done stained glass? How is your writing going? Tell me in the comments!

Beautiful Books: 2017 Writing Goals

Hello, all! Beautiful Books is back, and I’m ready to review the progress of my NaNoWriMo book, plus making some writing goals for this year. What is Beautiful Books, you ask? It’s a spinoff of Beautiful People, a monthly link-up run by Cait @ Paper Fury and Sky @ Further Up and Further In, in which we bloggers answer ten questions about one of our characters/books. This month, it also incorporates writing goals. So let’s get to the questions!

  1. What were your writing achievements last year? Hmm. Last year was . . . interesting, at least relative to my goal-setting for writing. For the first seven months or so, I was pushing myself really hard to finish editing Windsong, which had been my primary project for eight years. Eventually, it didn’t pan out, and I decided to take a break from Windsong and from setting deadlines for myself in general. This led to my doing NaNoWriMo after taking a year off in 2015, and actually getting close to winning; my first draft of Circle of Fire, a sort of crazy new project, came to about 48,000 words.
  2. What’s on your writerly “to-do list” for 2017? One: try not to stress too much about writing. This one is pretty much unfulfillable for me, since I’m so invested in writing that I can’t help but stress about it, but I’m going to do my best.
    Another rough goal is to finish Circle of Fire this year, or early next year. I’m also planning to work on at least one more project (tentatively titled This Hidden Darkness) so I can have a first draft to work on and keep me sane while editing. When I get to the editing stage of THD, another rough draft of yet another project may pop up, but we’ll see.
  3. Tell us about your top-priority writing projects for this year! With Windsong on the backburner, all my secondary projects are going to get space to shine. Circle of Fire, my current top priority, is about a young woman who starts fighting against magical terrorists after they kill her parents. (Yes, the one-line pitch is not perfect. You should see the draft. . . . *shudders*) This Hidden Darkness, currently in the outlining/placeholder-title stage, is more or less about two brothers trying to find their place in the world after escaping from slavery. (There’s a lot more to it than just that, but it’s still under wraps, so.)
  4. How do you hope to improve as a writer? Where do you see yourself at the end of 2017? God willing, I will have a book finished, properly finished, which is something I’ve never accomplished and would love to have happen. Other than that, just figuring out how to edit would be great.
  5. Describe your general editing process. Er . . . general frustration? Total mayhem? Suffice it to say that I’ve never completed an editing process before. In Scrivener, though, I’m set up for three types of edits: in order, the Character/Plot Edit, Description/Point of View Edit, and the Micro Edit. Then, presumably, I will go over everything one more time and mark it as Done.
  6. On a scale of 1-10, how do you think this draft turned out? Hmm. Seven? Seven-point-five, maybe. As usual with my rough drafts, a lot of things need to be changed around, but I feel like this one is better than the ones for past projects.
  7. What aspect of your draft needs the most work? The plot. It’s always the plot for me. I need to change the setting for the climactic moment, as well as adding some foreshadowing early on, and there’s probably more that I haven’t figured out yet.
  8. What do you like the most about your draft? Outlining works! It’s so neat and tidy and I have so little work to do compared to the first (or even seventh) draft of Windsong. Also, I love my characters, and the plot twist I put in at the end.
  9. What are your plans for this novel once you finish editing? More edits? Finding beta readers? Querying? Self-publishing? Hiding it in a dark hole forever? Somewhere between the Micro Edit and Done, I plan to find some beta readers to help me make more edits. And after that, I guess I’ll venture into the world of querying for the first time. It’s rather exciting, but I have such a long way to go before that happens.
  10. What’s your top piece of advice for those just finished writing a first draft?
    Hmm. I guess I’d say learn how to edit without going insane. For me, I’m going to try having another project sitting around to outline/draft when editing inevitably drives me crazy. And if you need to take breaks, do it. There’s no point in rushing editing; I found that out the hard way with Windsong. The book will get done at its own pace.

That’s it for me today!

What about you? Did you do NaNoWriMo in November? How’s the draft looking? What are your 2017 writing goals, if you have any? Did you do Beautiful Books this month? (If so, drop a link in the comments!) What’s your editing process (any help for someone mired in the figuring-out phase)? Share in the comments!

What I’m Reading: The Progeny by Tosca Lee

I’d been wanting to read this book for a while after I noticed it in the “Thrillers” section on Goodreads (and my friend apprised me that Tosca Lee was an excellent author). When I finally got to it a couple of weeks ago, I was not disappointed. Here is my review!

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It’s a relatively new book for me; it came out May 2016.

Information for Readers

Genre: Supernatural thriller

Age level: Older teens to adults.

Content? There is mention of violence, and some characters die. No swearing at all, but some implied sex, nothing explicit. Lee is a Christian author, so everything is handled very well.

The Story: Emily Porter wakes up in rural Maine after having a procedure to erase her memory of the last two years; she doesn’t know who she really is or any names or faces from her previous life. Soon, two young men show up in her town, each claiming the other wants to kill her. Rolan reveals to her that she is really Audra Ellison, descendant of Elizabeth Bathory (known as the most prolific female serial killer in history), and that as a “Progeny,” she can influence most people’s thoughts. But the descendants of Bathory’s victims, the hunters, are out to kill every living Progeny and steal their memories. Now, Audra has to determine who to trust, what she was up to before she erased her memory, and most importantly, how to save the Progeny.

The premise of this book was just fascinating to me, and Audra’s memory loss had me hooked, wondering why she would do that. This story was great. More below. . . .

The Characters: Simply put, I loved them. (Except Nikola–he’s just evil.) Audra had to be my favorite, though Luka was a close second. I really liked how well-developed they and their relationship were. I also liked Claudia, though; I thought her overcoming her bitterness to Audra was really well done. I’m hoping to learn more about some characters, like Rolan and Clare, in the next book, but what I got about them was promising.

The Writing: Okay, so Lee deserves her reputation. She is an excellent writer. I did not find any grammatical mistakes in this book (which always endears authors to me), the showing and telling was perfectly placed, and the pacing. The pacing was amazing. I always admire people who can do pacing well; it’s something I have struggled with. It was perfect, with just enough “down time” between major incidents for Audra’s journey to bring important information to light. The worldbuilding was also handled really well, especially the Progeny underground in European cities, the order of the hunters, and the involvement of the Franciscans. Lee made it all blend so naturally with our world.

Overall: Wonderful story, well written, with compelling characters. Highly recommended, and I’m looking forward to the sequel!

Have you read The Progeny? Anything else by Tosca Lee? If so, what did you think of her writing? Who was your favorite character? Tell me in the comments!

The Synthetic Biology Equation: Engineering + Bioscience = The Future of Biotech

(Perhaps that title is a bit audacious; I don’t claim to be able to predict the future of anything. But it’s entirely possible that synth bio will play a big role in biotech in the future. Let’s explore that more below. . . .)

Good morning, everyone! I was traveling last week, which prevented my putting up this post on Saturday as usual, and I decided to postpone it till today.

One of the classes I took last semester was Biotechnology and Society, and I decided to write my final paper on synthetic biology after the teacher mentioned the first production of a self-replicating “man-made” cell by a group of scientists in California.

Before I dig into that a bit more, though, let me define synthetic biology (or synth bio for short): it is the full-scale application of engineering techniques to biological systems. How is it different from regular genetic engineering/GMO production, then? The answer lies in the scale of said engineering: for genetic engineering, it’s on the gene level, one or more genes plus regulatory elements (regulating the expression of the gene) within an organism. For synth bio, though, engineering is on the level of an entire chromosome or even a genome, either wholescale editing or rewriting from the ground up. Essentially, synth bio is genetic engineering on steroids.

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Stephane Leduc, author of La Biologie Synthetique

 

A little history: Synthetic biology was first conceived, if not put into practice, way back in 1912 when Stephane Leduc, a French scientist, published La Biologie Synthetique. In this book, Leduc stated that the consistent and controlled reproduction of natural processes seen in other sciences, like chemistry, was lacking in biology at his time. Synthetic biology couldn’t take off, though, without the development of molecular biology in the mid-1900s, starting with Crick and Watson’s discovery of DNA structure (a topic for another time). Then, the development of fast, easy sequencing sparked our current age of genomics, the study of whole genomes, and synthetic biology had all the tools it needed to become a practiced discipline.

This brings us up to recent developments. Just last year, a research group at the J. Craig Venter Institute, headed by Venter himself, succeeded in creating a self-replicating bacterium with a synthetic genome, the first of its kind. The bacterium, JCVI-syn3.0, has only what Venter’s team determined was the minimal genome necessary for life, a feat they accomplished by “mixing and matching” genes of the small bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides to find which ones a bacterium could live without. In future, Venter and his team see the use of similar synthetic bacteria not only to learn about life, but to engineer it for specific purposes, like biofuel production.

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A colony of JCVI-syn3.0

 

The question is: how synthetic is JCVI-syn3.0? Technically, it’s not really a man-made bacterium. Only the genome was man-made, and that was really only adapted from the genome of M. mycoides. The “shell” the genome was inserted into was simply a living bacterium with the genome removed. This is a big step for synthetic biology, but it has a long way to go before it is truly dictionary-definition synthetic.

What do you think? Have you heard of synthetic biology? Did you hear about the production of JCVI-syn3.0? Tell me in the comments!

Story Starters #5: Ender’s Game

“I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.”

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Good morning, everyone, and Happy New Year! It’s the first Saturday of 2017, and, as usual, I am here analyzing the first paragraph of a book. I reviewed this particular book, Ender’s Game, last month (last year, really), and I really liked it, so when I was looking around for a story beginning to look at today, I naturally picked this book. Let’s have a look at it, sentence by sentence.

  • “I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one.” This opening line has a lot of things going for it. Most clearly, the idea of experiencing someone else’s life, watching through his eyes and listening through his ears, is compelling and interesting and hints a little at the futuristic setting, where such things are possible. “I tell you he’s the one” is also an interesting statement; the “chosen one” trope is a major motif throughout this book, so mentioning it in the opening line is good foreshadowing. Finally, I want to mention the parallelism in this sentence. The “I’ve watched . . . I’ve listened . . . I tell” structure gives this line a certain oomph that makes the reader sit up and pay attention. The grammatical phrasing underlines the essential questions raised by this expertly crafted hook.
  • “Or at least as close as we’re going to get.” This sentence doesn’t have as many merits as the opening line, but it does convey some of the desperation of the International Fleet to find someone–anyone–who can defeat the bugger aliens. Mostly, however, I want to discuss here the technique of opening with dialogue. This is the first Story Starters post where I’ve analyzed opening dialogue; I think it can be a great method for getting right into the characters and the world (even though, here, secondary characters are the ones having the dialogue). In Ender’s Game, each chapter is opened with a bit of dialogue from Colonel Graff and someone else, usually Major Anderson; this is used to great effect to gradually reveal things, although it goes into overt telling in the later chapters. Basically, opening with dialogue is a good technique as long as it isn’t contrived and doesn’t tell too much (which should be general rules for dialogue anywhere in a book).

That’s it for me today!

What do you think? Have you ever read Ender’s Game? What do you think of its opening line as a hook? Have you ever read a book that used similar grammatical structure to emphasize a point? If you’re a writer, have you ever tried that technique? What other books have you read that open with dialogue? Tell me in the comments!