THE KEEP by Jennifer Egan

Why or how Jennifer Egan landed in my TBR pile is as mysterious as her novel. The Keep was an unexpected delight and is one of the books I’ve read in 2015 that is poking at my writing life.

Like most people, I read for entertainment: to experience the thrill of a life greater than mine, but the further I’ve progressed on my journey as a writer the more what I read informs the writer in me. This year in particular has taught me an enormous amount about character intentions, voice, brevity and the emotional well, but The Keep has nudged me to consideration another dimension in storytelling. Jennifer Egan’s story sweetly coaxed me onto the tightrope where I suspended my disbelief then cut the rope and allowed me to fall further into another realm of possibility.

Two cousins, irreversibly damaged by a childhood prank, reunite twenty years later to renovate a medieval castle in Eastern Europe. In an environment of extreme paranoia, cut off from the outside world, the men reenact the signal event of their youth, with even more catastrophic results. And as the full horror of their predicament unfolds, a prisoner, in jail for an unnamed crime, recounts an unforgettable story that seamlessly brings the crimes of the past and present into piercing relation. (Back Cover)

When the novel opens we are in the presence of the castle and rooted in Danny’s point of view. Danny is a character of high sensitivity and awareness.

Danny always paid attention to smells because they told the truth even when people were lying.

Danny’s life is a mess, which is why he’s accepted his cousin Howard’s invitation. We don’t necessarily approve of Danny but we empathize with his desire for change based on the memories he shares with us. Then wham we’re introduced to a new narrator:

But that wasn’t Danny’s line, that was Howie’s. He was heading into memory number two, I might as well tell you that straight up, because how I’m supposed to get him in and out of all these memories in a smooth way so nobody notices all the coming and going I don’t know.

And bam, we’re back into Danny’s POV. I thought perhaps I missed something and went back to the beginning, reading extra slowly to see if I had been careless in my comprehension. Nope. A second or two of dismay enveloped me then delight carried me forward. Egan was asking me to read outside the box and I could find no reason not to oblige. In fact, I was hooked, and my intrigue increased when Howard was officially introduced and he informs us of his vision for the castle he plans to renovate—a hotel where people will be able to reconnect with themselves.

What’s missing? What do they need? What’s the next step? And then I got it: imagination. We lost the ability to make things up. We’ve farmed out the job to the entertainment industry, and we sit around and drool on ourselves while they do it for us.

Like Danny I’m skeptical of his cousin’s idea and fearful of where this is all going to lead. Is Howard setting him up, is this an elaborate plan for payback? The reader in me is thrilled by how my level of investment is growing. What excites me more is the sense that I’m being challenged as a writer. I don’t believe Egan ever intended this to happen, but from this moment on my writer-self was as much invested in her storytelling as my reader-self—watching in awe as her characters crashed through boundaries.

The second POV character, the prisoner in the tale, is firmly in place and I am as fascinated by his story as Danny’s. He’s writing Danny’s story, and on the surface there is nothing out of the ordinary about this. The surprise for me is how real Danny is to me at this point. I have the keen sense the stories are happening simultaneously, in parallel worlds and the prisoner is not so much making his story up as reporting what he sees.

Parallel storylines are nothing new in literature, but what sets Egan’s structure apart from other novels is the way in which The Keep’s storylines are bound together. A Twilight Zone atmosphere permeates the descriptions and makes the reader wonder if what the characters are experiencing is reality or a figment of their imagination.

The feel of her hand made him shudder: twigs and wire floating around in the softest pouch of skin he’d ever touched—like a rabbit’s ear or a rabbit’s belly or some even softer rabbit place […] Her way of moving was jerky, impatient like she was shaking off a person she was sick of.

The Keep is an extraordinary tale, which challenges the reader to expand their sense of believability, a mystery unfolding with layers of questions that hold the reader’s attention until the final twist, where a third narrator surfaces to bring this spellbinding story to a close.


EVEN THE DEAD by Benjamin Black

During my month long Artist Date in Ireland this summer I became curious about their bestseller’s list, so I sauntered into Dubray Books on Grafton Street in Dublin and discovered one of my favorite authors, John Banville, has an alias. His Quirke Mystery Series, written under Benjamin Black, is seven novels strong and an interesting departure for him. I was so excited the fact that Even the Dead is the seventh novel in the series escaped me until I returned to my flat.

If any other writer had written Even the Dead I would’ve set it aside until I had read at least the first book in the series, but I knew I could trust Banville, aka Benjamin Black, to calm my anxiety and engage me. In addition to fulfilling my expectations, this prize winning author showed me the important power of brevity.

Let’s begin with the establishment of setting. The Quirke Mysteries are set in Dublin during the 1950s. I wasn’t aware of this until fifty pages in. This revelation could’ve been jarring, but in fact, I was delighted by the way my discovery came about. The era clarified itself through the accumulation of period details woven into passages like this:

…there would be the rich brown smell of roasting coffee beans from the open doorway of Bewley’s Oriental Café, and paper boys would be calling out the latest headlines, and there would be the sound of horse’s hoofs on cobblestones, and cries of the flower-sellers at their stalls. Summer. Crowds. Life.

The 1950s was never “formally” introduced but by the time my brain gathered enough of those little details, i.e. paper boys, to register the era in my mind I was already entrenched in the appropriate decade. This is a writer who truly trusts and believes in the intelligence of his readers. This was most evident in the passages when Black/Banville was writing about character relationships. When the novel opens our protagonist Quirke is residing on his brother’s estate, still convalescing after a severe beating he took several years back. He is looking out the window and is soon joined by his brother’s wife.

Old things that had once been between them stirred and flashed, like fish in a deep, shadowed pool.

We receive no details about their affair, but this one line in conjunction with all the things, which go unsaid within the scene, show us they were involved and it wasn’t a one-night stand. The tension that oozes from these characters in subsequent scenes is also a symptom of Quirke’s other interactions. Every single relationship in his life is awkward on some level.

Quirke had again that sense of pervasive, mild melancholy. He wanted to touch his daughter, to make some gesture that would communicate all that he felt for her, whatever that was. But of course he couldn’t do that.

This passage says an enormous amount about Quirke without the benefit of his backstory, although as an orphan Quirke doesn’t have much of one.

What drove him, he believed, was the absence of a past. When he tried to look back, to his earliest days, there was only a blank space. He didn’t know who he was, where he came from, who had fathered him, who his mother had been. He could almost see himself, a child standing alone in the midst of a vast, bare plain, with nothing behind him but darkness and storm. And so he was here, on the trail of another lost creature.

The mystery of Quirke is a wonderful example of how little backstory is needed to create intrigue. In fact, it is the lack of backstory that drives Even the Dead. The missing pieces provide a layer of vulnerability and desperation for the protagonist, which enhance his observations in the moment. Quirke’s alertness keeps the readers riveted.

I tend to avoid series because, other than Stephen King’s The Dark Tower Series, I’ve never come across a protagonist whose mere presence intrigues and compels, until I met Quirke. Even the Dead is a mystery unlike any other I have ever read, and its power stems from brevity of what is said in conjunction with what goes unsaid.


IN THE WOODS by Tana French

In The Woods was published in 2007. I bought my copy in 2009 because agents and editors continued to rave about Tana French’s storytelling. But curiosity didn’t get the better of me until this past spring while I was in the midst of wrestling with another draft for my WIP. The timing was perfect. Nothing spotlights your faults as a writer better than reading a book by an author who excels where you flounder. This is what Tana French taught me about first person narratives.

1-Tension in first person narratives stems from the narrator’s personal unrest.

French’s narrator, Detective Robert Ryan, was abducted with two friends at the age of twelve. He was the only one found. He has no memory of the incident. He knows the facts of the case only because he read the police file after he made detective. But while investigating the murder of a 12-year old girl found in the same woods where he was abducted, Ryan’s desire to recall what happened to him surfaces.

I had started trying—for the first time, really—to remember what had happened in that wood. I prodded tentatively around the edges of it, barely acknowledging even to myself what I was doing, like a kid picking at a scab but afraid to look. 

Ryan doesn’t admit to this quest until almost halfway through the book, but his vulnerability and the fear of discovering the truth is integral for many of his observations from the beginning.

Men like him—men who are obviously interested purely in what they think of other people, not in what other people think of them have always made me violently insecure. They have a gyroscopic certainty that makes me feel bumbling, affected, spineless, in the wrong place in the wrong clothes.

Although first person tension may stem from the narrator’s personal unrest, readers don’t want to get sucked into a victim’s POV. Whining is no way to acquire friends. I empathized with Detective Robert Ryan because he refused to let past events influence his present. His ability to bounce back, his inner strength, made me want to stand by him for the long haul.

I suppose the whole thing must have had its effects on me, but it would be impossible […] to figure out exactly what they were. I was twelve, after all, an age at which kids are bewildered and amorphous, transforming over-night, no matter how stable their lives are; and a few weeks later I went to boarding school, which shaped and scarred me in far more dramatic, obvious ways. It would feel naive and basically cheesy to unweave my personality, hold up a strand and squeal: Golly, look, this one’s from Knockernaree!

2-The best way to avoid backstory is to step away from the facts.

By illuminating only the essence of the situation, French allows the reader to snuggle up faster with the conflict and relationships the protagonist is dealing with.

That weekend I went over to my parents house for Sunday dinner. I do this every few weeks, although I’m not really sure why. We’re not close; the best we can do is a mutual state of amicable and faintly puzzled politeness, like people who met on a package tour and can’t figure out how to end the connection.

3-The most intoxicating chemistry happens outside of the bedroom.

Because sex is such an integral part of television and film these days, I think its easy to forget the real chemistry that leads to the bedroom begins in tiny observations.

The oversized raincoat made her look about eight, as though she should have had matching Wellies with ladybugs on them, and inside the red hood were huge brown eyes and rain-spiked lashes and a face like kittens. I wanted to dry her gently with a big fluffy towel, in front of a roaring fire.

This moment between Ryan and his new partner Cassie Maddox spurs the imagination and establishes their friendship. There is a misstep down the line, but the momentum of the story is driven by the magnetic bond between them, sparked solely through simple observation.

4-The protagonist’s inner journey is the secret to engagement.

In the Woods is a police procedural. The chapters are atmosphere rich with in-depth conversations, all related to the murder. The information Detectives Ryan and Maddox uncover is wound so tight there is no telling how it will unravel. Then the case dries up.

This case was like an endless, infuriating street corner shell game: I knew the prize was in there somewhere, right under my eye, but the game was rigged and the dealer much too fast for me, and every sure thing I turned over came up empty.

French shows us the tedium of detective work by keeping us abreast of all the factors the police need to eliminate in order to get a clear glimpse of the killer. As a result the readers feel as exhausted and frustrated as Ryan and Maddox. But the reason I kept turning the pages during the stagnation was Detective Ryan’s inner journey. As his past becomes more present he begins to fall apart and make mistakes on the job. I questioned whether I could trust him. The time bomb nature of his emotional state was the thread that carried me through to the didn’t see it coming end.

In The Woods is a mystery, police-procedural, psychological thriller and an exemplary study guide for writers who wish to learn more about first person narratives.


THE BONE GARDEN by Tess Gerritsen

I plunged into Tess Gerritsen’s world with The Surgeon. I admired her skill and enjoyed the story, while feeling at arms distance from the characters. The Bone Garden pleased me in ways The Surgeon did not.

Within the first six pages Gerritsen uses her skill in harnessing words to deliver actions and images that raise questions, and suggest the layers of secrets to be revealed about the mystery behind the garden.

When she had first walked through the rooms […] and spied the bit of antique wallpaper peeking through a tear in the many layers that had since covered it, she’d known the house was special. 

Each chapter reveals something new about character or situation. The pace is a foot and ought to be studied by every writer. So is Gerritsen’s ability to deliver the 1830’s storyline into the reader’s lap through the viewpoint of character.

One of the female lodgers had lured a client upstairs. Rose understood the necessity of it, knew that a few minutes with your legs spread could mean the difference between supper and a growling belly. But the noises the couple made, on the other side of that thin curtain, brought a mortified flush to Rose’s cheeks. She could not bring herself to look at Norris […] Reluctantly, she looked at him and found his gaze unflinching, as though he was determined to ignore the rutting and dying that was happening only a few feet away. As if the filthy sheet had curtained them off into a separate world, where she was the sole focus of his attention. 

Each character is fully formed with goals and obstacles that naturally collide to increase the stakes. Add in the real life character of Oliver Wendell Holmes Senior and the reader is effectively transported to another time, where the West End Reaper makes Jack the Ripper’s modus operandi appear like child’s play.

I was so expertly misled in regard to the identity of the Reaper; if I were planning on writing a mystery I would dissect The Bone Garden. I would not say the same when it comes to writing novels with past and present storylines.

Writing a coherent, engaging novel is hard enough, in my experience, without complicating the execution by including a past and present storyline. The stakes need to be enormously high in the present to warrant delving into a past event that is better off forgotten—and I believe the protagonist needs to feel the past should be left alone, otherwise it lessens the conflict for him in the present. Without sufficient conflict there is no urgency, and urgency is what forces characters to act and readers to turn the page.

The author who shines in this area is Stephen King. Perhaps I haven’t read widely enough, but King is the only author I know who never disappoints when a story revolves around a protagonist in crisis who must resolve his past in order to achieve victory over the bad guys in the present. If you have doubts check out It and Dreamcatcher. The other novelist to impress me in this area is Anita Shreve. Her parallel stories in The Weight of Water were equally riveting. I didn’t want either of them to end. I can’t say the same for The Bone Garden.

The present story is told from the point of view of Julia Hamill—a newly single woman who discovers the remains of a murder victim that dates back to the 1830’s in her garden. Straight away, I have to say I like Julia. She is in a bad way after her divorce, but underneath the sadness rises a pluckiness that makes me rally behind her. Even though she is only battling a boulder in the opening pages, Gerritsen show us there is serious emotional damage to overcome.

All morning she had been digging like a woman possessed, and beneath her leather gloves blisters were peeled open. 

I’m in. I want to learn more about Julia, find out how she ended up in this emotional pickle and see her do battle against the demons that bar her from happiness. Julia’s ex-husband drops by in the fourth of nine present-day chapters. We are shown that he’s a jerk, but Julia deals with him without repercussions. Whatever happened in her marriage has no weight when it comes to this unsolved murder, so why does she care about the mystery of the skeleton? Her desire or curiosity into the history of her house isn’t strong enough to propel the story. Fortunately the Rose Connolly-Norris Marshall story had enough going for it that I was willing to give Julia more time to reveal her need to solve the murder mystery.

Eventually, like Julia, I learned that the letters she sorts through—with a descendant of the prior owner of her house—written by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. are historical documents. Searching  for historical evidence has driven many stories like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Robert Harris’s Archangel. But the protagonists in these stories have careers that deal with history. Their passion to uncover the truth or validate information is need enough for their deeper and deeper involvement in the mystery, or thrill factor of the story that also puts the protagonists lives at risk. This is not the case in The Bone Garden. I found the emotional connection between Julia Hamill and Rose Connolly too thin to warrant the present-day storyline. Gerritsen’s justification pays off in the end, but I can’t help wondering why the Rose and Norris storyline wasn’t enough? If they can carry 75% of the novel why not 100%?

Perhaps I’m over critical because I’m searching for all the holes in my WIP at the moment. And I have to say, the thinness of Julia’s story did not prevent me from enjoying Gerritsen’s novel. My analysis is based on where I am as a writer and person. The more I read and the more I write, the more I understand this to be true. So I encourage every writer and booklover to draw your own conclusions and when and if our lives intersect we can enjoy a healthy discussion of The Bone Garden


OUTERBOROUGH BLUES: A Brooklyn Mystery by Andrew Cotto

I discovered Andrew Cotto on Twitter. He followed me. The information on his website intrigued me. I followed back and placed his books on my Wish List. Shortly after, I found myself in the Barnes and Noble in New York City’s Union Square. I searched the shelves for his name and was fortunate to snatch up the last Autographed copy of Outerborough Blues. At the time I was reading Lamott’s Bird by Bird, so I placed the novel in my TBR pile.

Last September I dusted it off and fell headlong into a vortex of loss and forward motion. Andrew Cotto has written one of the best prologues I’ve ever read. I was immediately interlinked with narrator Caesar Stiles, a haunted soul driven to find peace.

My mother’s mother came to this country in the usual way—she got on a boat with other immigrants and sailed from Sicily. She wasn’t one of them, however: neither tired nor poor or part of any huddled mass. Instead, she traveled alone, with her money in one sock and a knife in the other, coming to the new world with an old world motive—to murder the man that had left her for America.

Film noir is a favorite of mine. Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers never fail to rope me in. The shadows, low lighting, the gritty mood and matching voice of the narrator are only some of the elements of fascination. I believe Andrew Cotto also grew up fascinated by film noir, for his novel is drenched in its style. His descriptions twist and rock to unearth the characters emotional states while steeped in the narrator’s point of view.

She stood across the bar’s curve, her hands tucked out of sight, her shoulders pinched as if she had failed, while dressing to separate hanger from garment.

The grit and detailed mood, the picture window view of character, the way each character zeroes in on the next to form a connection that is unique and delineates the relationship like a crystal fractures light, held me in awe—until it didn’t.

Sometime after Caesar sets out to track down the beautiful French girl’s missing artist brother, I became restless. At the time, I believed the action of the story had gotten lost in the descriptions. I couldn’t keep tabs on Caesar’s purpose, so I stopped reading.

For the next six months I filled my days and nights with other authors and my WIP. Yet, all through those months Outerborough Blues gnawed and haunted me the way only true film noir can. I removed the bookmark from my stopping point, but returned to the beginning, and promised myself to read Cotto’s novel straight through. I could take breaks, but no other books would cross my path until I was finished with the Blues. This is what I discovered.

I pressed through the heat of hard stares and fought the discomfort of being unwanted and possibly in danger. 

Once I made a commitment to the novel, I realized I had been the problem last fall. Multiple reading assignments for a course I was enrolled in, on top of recovering from a physical injury had created more of a distraction than I realized. I never considered being stretched too thin because I often read more than one book at a time without difficulty. On the other side of my course and recovery, I found a resurgence of delight in Outerborough Blues and never thought about putting it down.

The opening lost no luster the second time through. In fact, I appreciated Cotto’s style more. Caesar’s unrest is steady fuel as he takes on his Sam Spade role. True to film noir, we are never certain where he will go next, or how he will handle himself as he digs deeper into the missing person mystery. And there lies our joy. We piece together the clues only as he does.

Cotto’s novel unfolds with a razor’s edge to reveal only what we need to know, when we need to know it. And the six degrees of separation between the characters from past to present remind us to keep our friends close and our enemies closer.

Outside, a sheath of newspaper rattled over the sidewalk like urban tumbleweed.

Outerborough Blues is an underground mystery that taps into the dreams and myths we create to survive and shows us how to sort through them in order to deal with the reality of life, and accept the truth about who we are and what we want. A haunting tale you don’t want to miss.

Step into the streets of Urban Noir with Outerborough Blues.


A COLD AND LONELY PLACE by Sara. J. Henry

Although I do my best to read across bookshelves, my early life can be divided into genre chunks: the romance years, the thriller phase, at least a decade of self-improvement, months where I lived vicariously through memoirs and biographies and, of course, mysteries. I am the ideal mystery reader. My suspension of disbelief is activated on the first line and I’m fully engaged until the end—gullible, oh, so gullible.

I marvel at the mystery writer’s ability to plant red herrings and build suspense until the reader is so wrapped up in the chaos of clues they can’t trust anyone other than the hero. To write an unsolvable mystery seems an impossible task for me. But each time I’ve read a Sara J. Henry novel I’ve been tempted to accept the challenge. I covet her style.

The leanness of her writing keeps the reader and the protagonist, Troy Chance’s attention on the action. By sticking to the facts Henry gives the reader freedom to discover their own emotional connection to the events and characters within the story. Henry’s faith in her readers deepens our faith in her as a storyteller—a winning combination.

Henry’s debut novel Learning to Swim, which won the Anthony Award and Agatha Award for Best First Novel and the Mary Higgins Clark Award, also features protagonist Troy Chance. Reading Learning to Swim is not essential for your enjoyment of A Cold and Lonely Place thanks to the effortless way Henry drops bits of information about Troy’s earlier escapades.

I wasn’t going to ask about searching Tobin’s e-mail account, possibly because I’d
gotten myself into so much trouble last summer downloading someone else’s e-mail.

But my hunch is by the time you finish this second novel you’ll snatch up the first because there is nothing like a well-spun mystery, and Troy Chance is a fascinating heroine. Her no-nonsense, no frills attitude draws us in while her self-awareness seals our desire to be her best friend. Her evolution becomes our own. Troy inspires us to strengthen the best parts of ourselves through the deft way she navigates dicey situations. A Cold and Lonely Place is filled with them. And because Troy is never hundred percent certain about anyone, neither is the reader. Even when all the characters are getting along, the way Henry weaves the tapestry of the story together there is a constant undercurrent of mistrust and foreboding. Nothing is predictable.

Sara J. Henry is able to keep the mystery threads alive until the very end because the only details she doles out are the ones we need to know. She shows writers how easy it is for a character to carry a story without barfing up every scrap of turmoil in their lives. A Cold and Lonely Place and Learning to Swim resonate with us because the characters, although colored by their past, live actively in the present.

Plunge into the present of A Cold and Lonely Place.


LEARNING TO SWIM by Sara J. Henry

If you daydream of being a risk taker this is the novel for you. Troy Chance’s same-old, same-old life is obliterated when she dives off a ferry into Lake Champlain to rescue a six-year-old boy.

I often have a love-hate relationship with first person narratives. Not this time. From the opening sentence, Troy Chance’s emotional rollercoaster was my own. Learning to Swim is a suspenseful mystery with oodles of heart that challenges you to step outside your own comfort zone and become a risk taker. How does Sara J. Henry manage this? By eliminating backstory. With no info dumps the reader, like Troy, is continually in the midst of action. There are also no safety nets. Henry side steps the predictable at every turn and forces Troy to venture into the unknown. That’s an exciting read.

I can’t stop thinking about the characters or the story. Glad to hear there’s a sequel on the way. And if my enthusiasm isn’t enough to convince Learning to Swim has one the 2012 Anthony Award for Best First Novel, the 2012 Agatha Award for Best First Novel and the 2012 Mary Higgins Clark Award.

Learn to risk by reading Learning to Swim.