I begin by reviewing the summer reading. Since my summer reading is novels, I like to use it to review the elements we will be continuously be focusing on. I also like to start with a short story for the same reason, so I can review the analysis skills they should have and will need or introduce new skills.
After summer reading work is over, I generally start with a play--something interactive and interesting and fairly fast-paced, kind of as a reward for having to struggle through all that summer reading alone. I've had great success with The Crucible, though I suppose it could be anything else which you think would generate some delight and enthusiasm for reading and for the class. Lots of good, interesting writing opportunities as follow-up work for Crucible, as well.
I don't begin the year with a novel simply because I teach novels in the AP Literature and Composition class as whole units rather than have students read while we're studying the text in class. So we begin the year with writing so that the students have time to begin preparing their reading. I do start with a short novel so that we can get into the reading quickly though (for the last few years it has been When the Emperor Was Divine which is only about 150 pages).
I begin the year with poetry analysis. I've found that students are more comfortable using short pieces at the beginning of the year, & it's a great way to revisit techniques and terminology. Plus, our school always has great movement for about the first 2 weeks of the school year, so I wait until the rosters have settled to jump into novels. Also, by this time we've reviewed major elements and concepts, which they can them apply to our study.
You could do lit circles where each group is focusing on one major literary element like allegory, etc. and have them teach it to the class as a whole. Follow up with short story or poem companion pieces which will solidify the lit terms in the minds of all students...not just the ones who taught that particular element. Then focus on the review as you usually do with novels at the end as well. Kids love lit circles/book groups, and they usually love showing off what they know. It works well with honors and AP groups.
I use novels throughout the year from beginning to end. At the beginning of the year they are a great review so you can see what students already know about the basics: plot, rising action, climax...etc. You don't need to cover everything the novel has to offer. I choose to make the first novel very basic. The students like to do book groups and novels are a great way to for students to connect to writers and stories. I also enjoy introducing students to literature that is, perhaps, more difficult than they can do on their own, but as a class, they really begin to understand it. Then, as the year progresses you can slowly have them work more indepently with each book. They're able to do this because you've already modeled how! It's a great confidence builder.
I don't see why you couldn't. You can do the same boot camp sort of "training" on novels as you can stories if you take excerpts to focus on in the beginning. Then, you can always bring in stories or poems as companion pieces to drive home any concepts you're focusing on at the time.
I begin with summer reading novels.
The problem I find with novels is that it is hard to focus on the many literary elements that a students should know. I usually use novels for a review of what we studied in the year and as evidence that student can use the information they learned in class and find it in novels. I usually use short stories for analysis throughout the year and the novels in the end.