Since you all are being shy
Let me kick off the contest with three suggestions — and one is so immodest that I am using it less to suggest that is a winner, as to explain my thought process about what an opening sentence and paragraph can and should do. Perhaps that will invite you authors to select some of your own, and to talk us through your decisions in how you started your books.
An American Plague, Jim Murphy: "Saturday, August 3 1793. The sun came up, as it had every day since the end of May, bright, hot, and unrelenting." This leads us into a paragraph that ends, "dead fish and gooey vegetable matter were exposed and rotted, while swarms of insects droned in the heavy, humid air." We get the dateline information right away, and chronology will become a kind of character in this book, in which the momentum of epidemic is driven home by dates; chronology will also give us the ticking clock sense of a race against time. Then look at the last word of that first sentence: "unrelenting" Jim has made weather a force — it is not merely background, it is an actor. We are always warned against giving emotions to nature, but here Jim is not anthropomorphizing, he is characterizing. And that first ominous sentence leads into a paragraph where the "hot, humid air" is suffed with death, rot, and decay. Notice that Jim has done two things — set a tone for the book, just as vividly as any vampire book that begins with the spooky castle, and set up the idea of illness as carried by vapor. We are in the tone of the book, and the mindset of the time, yet entirely within description of what might be seen as pure background. This is a great opening for a nonfiction book.
Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow (adult, favored by my wife, the Henry James fan) "In the early 1850s, few pedestrians strolling past the house on H Street in Washington, near the White House, realized that the ancient widow seated by the window, knitting and arranging flowers, was the last surviving link to the glory days of the early republic. Fifty years earlier, on a rocky, secluded ledge overlooking the Hudson River in Weekawken, New Jersey, Aaron Burr, the vice president of the United States, had fired a mortal shot at her husband, Alexander Hamilton…." Notice the misdirection — starting with the widow, 50 years after the death of the subject of the book, we sense that this is a book about someone misunderstood, ignored, passed over. Again, the author uses the opening to establish the atmosphere, the themes, the tone of the book, rather than with a direct statement about his subject — we are entranced, not merely informed.
Immodesty: my book on RFK. "His brother Jack leans back, straight as a board, counterbalancing the wind. Flash II, Jack calls his trim Star Class boat, whose sails billow like the stylish dresses of well-brought up debutantes." The paragraph ends, "the third brother — ten years younger than Joe, and eight that Jack — Bobby, with the name that sounds so girlish, so sweet, Bobby cannot swim." My purpose here is to give the reader the feeling of Bobby being obscured by his shining brothers who live in a world of cotillions; he is hidden within his family from the outset. I could not begin with Bobby, because Bobby, to me, was part of a larger unit that shaped him. To begin with him would give the reader the sense that he had an individual importance, which was totally untrue to him — in fact it was his life challenge to both find his place within the family, and to define his own individual self. I wanted readers to feel that struggle, even before I named it.
So folks, tells us about openings you like, that you created, that caught your eye.