‘SALEM’S LOT by Stephen King

Six weeks back my book pal—who has only read one Stephen King novel—suggested we read ‘Salem’s Lot and discuss it for our literary edification. I was mildly enthusiastic, but not really. My response surprised me. I’m a fan. One of the four bookshelves in my office is devoted to the books of Stephen King. I have read The Stand three times and have no doubts about revisiting it and the Dark Tower Series at least once more before I passon. Nothing against ‘Salem’s Lot, I’ve read it twice, but I never intended to read it again. What more could those vampires have to say to me? More than I ever believed possible. And how soon did I change my mind about the impact of ‘Salem’s Lot? As soon as I turned to page one.

Almost everyone thought the man and boy were father and son. 

The line is anchored in truth and echoes with fear; a combination that permeates King’s work. Fear of the truth is an undercurrent in life that perpetuates white lies and keeps secrets. Fear is the foundation of drama and King owns the market.

I’ve come across a lot of people who refuse to read books written by Stephen King because the content is too scary. The scare factor is a given, but it’s not the only ingredient at work. Behind the evil things he unleashes when he opens the closet door or looks under the bed is a ton of humor.

That Weasel, he does love to talk. He’ll open his mouth too wide one day and fall right in. 

And no one twists a phrase into funny better.

But there was more than dullness in the confessional; it was not that by itself that had sickened him or propelled him toward that always widening club, Associated Catholic Priests of the Bottle and Knights of the Cutty Sark.

To handle location as if it were a character is part of good storytelling. To make location, in this case the town or The Lot, a principle point of view character ramps up the tension.

The town has a sense, not of history, but of time, and the telephone poles seem to know this. If you lay your hand against one, you can feel the vibration from the wires deep in the wood, as if the souls had been imprisoned in there and were struggling to get out. 

The Lot’s hold on every resident allows the reader to sneak peeks at peripheral characters that would otherwise not be given page time. Seeing who’s who and what’s happening around the edges of town is like spilling gasoline over the entire story. All the reader has to do is wait for the first match to spark.

The atmosphere of fear King stirs is glorious. But what I admire most is the way he handles character. Descriptions are never shopping lists of observations. Characters are introduced through an essence of mood.

His face looked sad and old, like the glasses of water they bring you in cheap diners.

He also trusts the moment to establish the dynamics of the relationship and provide a glimpse of the participants’ underbellies.

Eva Miller was in a white terrycloth robe, and her face full of the slow vulnerability of a person still two-fifths asleep. They looked at each other nakedly, and he was thinking: Who’s sick? Who died? 

This underbelly, which is woven with the character’s weaknesses and guilt—in the end—is only a mask. King’s characters are stronger than Superheroes because they do not possess the confidence or the skillset required to do battle. What they do possess is a belief in the goodness or light that coexists with the evil that has infiltrated their world. Not all of his characters survive, but they are willing to approach the inmost cave, as Christopher Vogler describes in The Writer’s Journey, and face the darkness there in.

The exultation had faded away like a bad echo of pride. Terror struck him around the heart like a blow. Not terror for his honor or that his housekeeper might find out about his drinking. It was a terror he had never dreamed of, not even in the tortured days of his adolescence. 

The terror he felt was for his immortal soul. 

When the reader comes upon these moments the tension spikes and they know there is no turning back. So they follow the characters forward knowing that death is as probable as victory.

Another fascinating standard in King’s stories is the simultaneous metamorphosis of children and adults in the same story. To see a child and an adult process the ascent of evil at the same time, but in different ways, helps the reader comprehend the situation on a much deeper level.

The joy of reading ‘Salem’s Lot—for the third time—returned, as I said, right at the beginning and the thrill of the ride never lessened. When I was a mere fifty pages into the story my husband walked into my office. I jumped, screamed and laughed to release the tension that had already taken hold of me. And the more I read, the more my adrenalin pumped like I was watching a thriller on the big screen that made me scramble to sit higher in my seat, while I held my breath and clenched my hands.

What deepened the thrill was my inability to remember the ending. Usually when I reread a book, the upcoming details flood back—not in a bad way—they flow in and upgrade the tension and anticipation. My inability to recall the ending of ‘Salem’s Lot—in fact, at one point I was certain of a different outcome—has increased my admiration for Stephen King’s storytelling. He wraps the reader up so tightly in the moment, our imagination becomes more powerful than memory.

What will the Vampires of ‘Salem’s Lot teach you?


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


NEARER HOME by Joy Castro

Joy Castro’s ability to capture the sensory essence and pulse of New Orleans in Hell or High Water made me homesick. I’m nostalgic all over again thanks to Nearer Home.

Nola Céspedes, Castro’s protagonist, is a straightforward, no-nonsense reporter with more baggage and character flaws than Nick and Nora Charles could sort through. But I do believe the three of them would get along. Nola may not run in the same society circle as Nick and Nora, but she’s not afraid to have a good time and she has a way of gaining a person’s trust. Both of these characteristics often lead her into more dangerous situations than she planned for, and that’s just one of the reasons it’s hard to put Nearer Home down. Without chapters ending in gimmicky hook lines, or deliberate breaks in action, turning the page was still a must for me because Nola is one intriguing dame.

Nola’s friends are an authentic group of women that cross cultures, races and classes. In addition to her job as a reporter, she volunteers in the community as a Big Sister—a position she has a natural sensitivity for even though her family background has major holes. The fact that she’s willing to accept the challenge in spite of her doubts is why we’re on her side. Nola extends herself when it’s easier to pull back. Her courage, shaky as it often is, turns a light on the reader’s conscience, and that’s one of the marks of great fiction.

In therapy for post-traumatic stress and a series of unhealthy copying mechanisms that include no-strings sex with strangers, Nola is an ideal protagonist for the crimes she gets involved with much like Mariska Hargitay’s character, Olivia Benson from Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Major plot points that trigger issues for the main character add layers of complexity, vulnerability and tension to story. Nearer Home is full of all three.

Joy Castro has a unique character in Nola Céspades, and Nola’s voice feels like the reader’s own. It’s a winning combination that soars thanks to Castro’s choice to place this particular crime reporter in New Orleans.

We’re always in a context that’s bigger than we are and moving fast. We can never see all the pieces. We’ve all got our lurking pockets of prejudices and fear. And the Ninth is a scary place. Cops get killed there. Show me someone whose vision’s not tainted by the past, and I’ll show you a saint. 

Writers know characters make choices based on what they’ve been through, what they’re currently struggling to release and what they want. Post-Katrina New Orleans is one of the most fertile locations Castro could’ve chosen for her flawed heroine. What Nola isn’t struggling with, her city is and that makes the landscape and conflicts of Nearer Home palpable and often too real, which is exactly why this reader will turn to Castro and Nola Céspades again and again.

If you’re curious about New Orleans, love suspense and character with loads of spunk, flaws and heart read Nearer Home.


THE THIEF OF AUSCHWITZ by Jon Clinch

Just when you think it’s impossible to tolerate another tale about the holocaust, The Thief of Auschwitz sucks you in. Jon Clinch possesses a slight of hand magic with words. Their simple declaration of truth is woven on the page as if he is about to entertain us with a fairytale, except this one is dark and twisted like The Black Swan, and we can’t turn away.

The events of the story stab and gut us and we are mesmerized by the horror. Not because we are evil, but because we are human. Our fascination lies in our need to prepare for the worst, for it is unthinkable that such cruelty exists. Our willingness to observe how others suffer reminds us to give thanks for the fortune in our lives.

What we reap from Clinch’s story is the result of the fine art of selection. Each word piles on top of the next—precise words in exactly the right order—to form sentences that reach into our hearts and squeeze our humanity. His ability to capture, with empathy, a situation he could not have experienced—the entire horrible truth of it—is a gift.

It’s true enough that in the city you never know what’s lurking around the next corner, but in the wide open spaces you just never know, period. Anything could happen. In the city you’ve got a fair chance, but out in the open you could get struck by lightening, or the earth could open right up or you could just get lost without one single thing to help you tell one cornfield from another.

Don’t call it paranoia, either. It’s not paranoia. It’s an acquired response. It’s one more souvenir I picked up at Auschwitz. Try working in the sun and the wind for a year or two, with Ukrainians pointing machine guns at you the whole time—or try lining up in a big open square every day for something that’s ostensibly roll call but that’s really a kind of random selection process for who’s going to get a bullet in his brain this morning—and you’ll decide that a blind alley with a broken streetlamp is a pretty good alternative to the great outdoors. Try watching the clouds race overhead when you can’t go anywhere yourself. Try watching the seasons change.

You’ll end up like me.

The Thief of Auschwitz is a compelling tale of Jacob, Eidel, Max and Lydia Rosen. Their situation portends death, but their hearts ooze with hope, strength in the presence of frailty and courage within a constant state of fear. They are exquisite examples of Sun Tzu’s wisdom that opportunities multiply as they are seized.

You may enter the world of Auschwitz with trepidation. You will exit with the certainty that love is the strongest thread in our lives.

Allow your heart to be stolen by The Thief of Auschwitz.


GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl hit the shelves in June of 2012.

As I write, Flynn’s novel is in week twenty-four on the New York Times Bestseller List. Until I cracked the spine on this book last week, I was oblivious to its popularity. Sure, I saw the title around town as they say, but I knew nothing about it. I liked the title, but nothing about it said read me. In fact, because I sensed its popularity I wanted to stay away. I never like to read what everyone else is reading, especially if it’s a hot property. Then a dear friend who is also a book addict told me the subject matter of Gone Girl was so disturbing she had vowed not to read it. I purchased the book the following day.

I still knew nothing about the story and didn’t have the slightest inkling about what the title meant. I chose not to read the jacket flap or the endorsements on the back of the book. All I did was open to page one and read. This is my advice to you. Let Gone Girl be a literary surprise the way The Sixth Sense surprised film audiences.

Gone Girl opens with a calm, pensive phrase, “When I think of my wife…” but nothing about this novel is calm. An undercurrent of tension is crocheted to each word and from that simple opening, I knew I would bare witness to the train wreck that was about to destroy Nick and Amy Dunne.

I also was certain that Flynn’s novel was a story with power enough to infiltrate every waking moment of my life. I crave this kind of reading experience. It is what I hope for each time I select a book. However, sometimes I need to engage caution, otherwise essential and important events in my actual life will be neglected. So, as soon as I opened GG I gave myself a two-chapter limit. It was an excruciating exercise and impossible to keep because Gillian Flynn is a no holds barred writer who pummels the reader until nothing else can be done except surrender.

The magnificence of Gone Girl lies in Flynn’s ability to shine a spotlight on a couple who could be your neighbors, people you wouldn’t think twice about. Then she microscopes into their lives, burrows under their skin and reveals all. Nothing is whitewashed. The characters never hold back and as a result I was often saying, “Yes, I know. I understand. I’ve been there.” I believe other readers are saying the same. There is a bit of Amy and Nick in all of us. Not something we want to confess, but it is one of the reasons Flynn’s characters are able to drag us into their world with such ease.

As for the ending…

The closer I came to the finish line, the faster my mind scrambled to discover all the possible endings. I considered what events would make me happy or unhappy as a reader, and examined where I might take the characters if I’d been fortunate enough as a writer to invent such a premise.

Then within the last twenty minutes of reading I understood what was going to transpire. I wasn’t thrilled, but I couldn’t let go, couldn’t stop hoping for yet another Gillian Flynn jaw-dropping twist (I believe she has a patent on them).

It is an ending I will ponder for years because as unsettling as it is, as a writer, I cannot argue with the inevitability of the events and am in awe of Flynn’s ability to choose wisely. If I could be granted three wishes, one of them would be to reside in Gillian Flynn’s mind while she writes her next novel.

Gone Girl turns the word safe into a four-letter word for terror. A disturbing ride you won’t want to miss.

Disappear from your life with Gone Girl.


HELL OR HIGH WATER by Joy Castro

Although I was born and raised in the Prairie State—Illinois—I never felt at ease, or at home until I moved to New Orleans. I lived in the Crescent City for six years. Life has transplanted my body in various states since, but my heart still resides in New Orleans. This is the truth and here is another: Joy Castro’s novel made me homesick.

Hell or High Water serves up the flavor of New Orleans thanks to Castro’s tight rhythmic prose. She paints the city like a thirty-second sketch artist whose secret technique is all in the details.

The full character of post-Katrina New Orleans is exposed without apology. But the weaknesses of the City that Care Forgot are endurable because of the strengths. The faith, hope, love and loyalty, which resides in each New Orleans native, anchors them to the traditions and the artistic core that makes this city unique, magical and the definition of persistence.

New Orleans is not the only well-rounded character in Hell. Nola Cèspedes, our über flawed heroine is so human readers may not like her. Given a choice between good or bad behavior, Nola will opt for the latter. And still we relate, see a bit of our own unlikeable selves within her and hope she sorts through the complexities of her life.

Nola’s journey illuminates another major element in Castro’s novel—class differences. As she illustrates the great divides between each level of society, we are reminded that our personal history may make us whole, but it doesn’t guarantee we will feel complete. And until we find a way to heal this rift within our personalities our soul is incapable of expansion.

My only reservation with the novel is the marketing of it as a thriller. The more I turned the page the more I was baffled by this label. Castro does lead us into some tension packed moments, but I never experienced the pulsating drive that I love about the thrill genre until I reached the twist at the end, and even then, not so much.

For me, Hell or High Water is a beautiful and important novel about a broken city and heroine that defies classification.  It’s a story that deserves an audience and I hope dear reader that will join the cheering section.

Dive into the magic of New Orleans with Hell or High Water.