BINDS THAT TIE by Kate Moretti

Avenue of Mysteries was all set to accompany me to the hair salon—a woman needs a good book for a hair salon. John Irving’s new novel is intriguing but the hardback is large and the story is dense, not exactly the best combination for a reader who is going to be continually interrupted. So, I grabbed Kate Moretti’s Binds That Tie with the idea of simply starting it at the salon and finishing it up after I’d reached the end of Irving’s book. The most interesting thing about intentions is that sometimes they get overruled by more pressing matters. In this case, I couldn’t sever myself from Binds That Tie. How’s that for a powerful title?

Moretti’s novel unfolds through two points of view. Maggie and Chris Stevens have been married for ten years—their blissful romance scarred by miscarriages and infidelities. When Maggie engages in, what she believes is a harmless flirtation, a deadly split-second decision forces Maggie and Chris onto a dangerous path fraught with secrets, lies, and guilt. This back cover capsulation led me to purchase the book, but the foundation for why I couldn’t turn away came from the opening lines from each POV character.

She hadn’t meant to kill him.

Not a day went by that Chris didn’t think about how he’d paralyzed a man.

These lines alone foreshadow a tale fraught with conflict and internal complexities, and Kate Moretti delivers. Binds That Tie covers a lot of unpleasant territory for readers: infidelities, murder, lies, revenge. Yet, no matter what indiscretions Maggie and Chris partake in, it’s impossible to condemn them because we empathize with the circumstances that have driven them to do what they do.

Not a Mom. Her belly was flat from not bearing children. Her skin, never stretched, was a smooth expanse of peach. Painted toenails, impeccable manicures, bikini waxes, and expensive haircuts were the things that had replaced child-rearing.

We are never out of touch with Maggie or Chris’s inner turmoil—this is where Kate Moretti shines—so by the time we get to this passage…

…Chris climbed into his truck and headed home under the same grayish pink sky he’d seen when he drove in. Is it dawn or dusk? And then he realized that the answer didn’t really matter either way.

We are intimately in tune with the desperation point they are functioning from. This base level of tension mounts as a tiny pool of characters are introduced—in particular, Chris’s best friend and lawyer Jake, who is Maggie’s ex-boyfriend and her sister Miranda’s husband. Crossover relationships are risky because they can feel forced or too convenient, but not here. Moretti’s complex intermingling of her characters works because the way in which these four people became intertwined is rooted in a natural flow of life events. The result is an emotional layer of suspense capable of competing with any thriller.

Her life had been invaded the way a gust of snowy air blew into a fire-warmed house.

This passage encapsulates the energy and chaos of this riveting novel. Binds That Tie is an examination into relationships people trust and the secret truths that destroy them. A fascinating read with an ending that shimmers and teeters on a landslide.

LIVE WIRE by Harlan Coben

Harlan Coben is the Spencer Tracy of Fiction. Katharine Hepburn said Tracy was like a baked potato, simple and honest. I don’t know any better way to describe Coben’s writing. And here’s the payoff: his characters are so grounded and their connections to each other are so real, as they continue to interact the tension escalates faster than wind whips across the plains. Coben’s interplay with the elements of fiction is so simple it feels complex.

His clarity in storytelling was amplified for me in Live Wire because it was my first encounter with the sports agent sleuth, Myron Bolitar, whose series began in 1995. I anticipated spending the first third of the book playing catch-up. I was wrong. Live Wire was the perfect story to become acclimated to Myron thanks to Coben’s ability to drop in background information without interrupting the flow of action.

If you’re a writer and can inhibit yourself from falling under Coben’s page-turning spell long enough to study his scene work, you’ll discover each chapter has a simple formula: establish the characters, their relationship, the conflict and get out. In addition, all dialogue reveals new information, raises questions and adds complications—all the essentials needed to advance the plot.

Coben’s writing is simple, but far from barebones. His characters are drawn with such specificity they jump off the page.

His skin was too oily, too shiny, so that he looked a bit like something Madame Tussaud created on an off day. The neck gave him away. It was scrawny and baggy, hanging loosely like an old man’s scrotum.

What I admire most about the storytelling of Harlan Coben is his ability to make us forget what we know. The entire gist of Live Wire is on the jacket flap. But Coben coaxes us so far into Myron Bolitar’s world, as the story unfolds, we only know what Myron knows. So, when events happen we’re as surprised as he is. How is this possible? I believe it stems from how Coben uses what if—the two-word root of every memorable story.

The harm that has fallen upon Myron’s friends and family stirs up past regrets and leads everyone to wonder what if they had acted differently. And as the characters run from poor choices, or attempt to undo the damage they’ve caused, the reader also begins to play the what if game. Our investment keeps us turning pages, but Coben’s characters are always twisting or unknotting the facts a fraction of a second faster than we can make sense of them. And that’s why his novels pack a wallop.

Live Wire made me fall for Myron Bolitar and his entourage. So you can imagine how disappointed I was to hear that the Bolitar series may have come to an end. Fortunately for me, I still have an entire series to catch up on. Or, I can get my fill of Myron by reading Coben’s New YA series starring Myron’s nephew Mickey. That’s Harlan Coben, simple, honest and a dependable baked potato.

Dig in to Live Wire.

DARK PLACES by Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn knows which buttons to push to keep us glued to the page. To start, she never minces words and gets straight to the horrible parts…

My brother slaughtered my family when I was seven. My mom, two sisters, gone: bang bang, chop chop, choke choke.

And because we can depend on her direct aim we know more terror is on its way.

Flynn’s books have an attitude like Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction, “I’m not going to be ignored.” This sums up the essence of Dark Places’s protagonist Libby Day. Libby is the car wreck that creates the gapers block. And even though we’re self-conscious and embarrassed about looking at the damage and the wounded, we must.

Reading a novel by Gillian Flynn is a master class in writing. Lesson 1-Never hold back. By telling the truth upfront a writer makes room for more twists and obstacles on the backend. 2-Characters don’t have to be likable, but readers need to feel empathy.

I was not a loveable child, and I’ve grown into a deeply unlovable adult. Draw a picture of my soul, and it’d be a scribble with fangs.

If that statement doesn’t reel in your heart or raise your curiosity, maybe you have meanness “as real as an organ” just like Libby Day.

All of these gripping moments that happen in the first five pages (don’t worry there is plenty more) bring us to another writing gem—Skip the boring parts. Readers may refer to Dark Places in a lot of different ways, but no one will call it boring. This is a slump free novel. Each chapter is a tight story of its own and together they comprise Libby’s life, a character impossible to forget. Isn’t that what every writer strives for—memorable characters in extraordinary circumstances?

Dark Places is more than a blueprint for how to craft a bestseller. Gillian Flynn has a gift for uncovering the nasty underbelly of life and exposing every cockroach in the goo. Her stories and characters make us question our own motives, baggage, and the lies we live with.

Find out if you’re afraid of Dark Places.

SHARP OBJECTS by Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn’s stories beckon readers the way a bottle of vodka calls an alcoholic.  It’s impossible to read just one book, chapter or sentence. I don’t know what I will do after I finish Dark Places—set up a calendar and mark off the days until her next release, I guess.

An author’s debut often reveals only the bud of style, a wisp of the signature themes that will be tattooed upon future pages and a voice fresh from the cocoon. Flynn’s Sharp Objects is not such a debut. Gillian Flynn sprung into the literary world like Athena out of Zeus’s head, fully formed and ready for battle.

At first the edginess of Sharp Objects stood in such contrast to Gone Girl, without the author’s name on the covers I would’ve sworn the books were written by two different writers. But once immersed I recognized the exquisite execution of certain shared elements: the need for characters to manipulate, the eavesdropping quality of dialogue, and how characters say what people in real life only say when they think no one else is listening.

Sharp Objects is all about what reporter Camille Preaker does not want to know when she returns to her hometown to follow a murder investigation. Flynn’s ability to thrust a damaged character back into the belly of the beast and increase the voltage is a prime example of no fear writing.

The payoff for the reader is sleepless nights from either staying up to finish or an inability to fall asleep once all the gruesome details are consumed.

Gillian Flynn’s debut exposes more than the behavioral inbreeding of small town life and the unhealthy hold some parents have over their children. She leaves her characters raw, desperate and wondering, always wondering whether they have or will choose wisely.

Prepare to protect your heart from Sharp Objects.

SIX YEARS by Harlan Coben

Harlan Coben entered my life in 2009. We’d seen each other across bookstores, but we kept our distance. My reluctance to introduce myself stemmed from fear—the fear of lust. A bald man gifted in the hook and twist game means danger for anyone with a large TBR pile.

My last ounce of resistance melted away when his name crossed the lips of editor Lisa Rector at the Surrey International Writers Conference. I was in Rector’s Eleventh Hour Checklist workshop. She talked a lot about avoiding safety as a writer.

“Don’t play the predictable card,” she said. “When you read Harlan Coben you always know what you’re going to get, but you never know how it will unfold. Take risks. Do the unexpected for the character and for you.”

Nothing sells an author faster than word of mouth. As soon as the conference was over I picked up two of his books. Rector was right. Coben delivered the goods and I purchased several more books—all of them stand-alone thrillers because, once again, I was afraid of falling in lust with the Myron Bolitar series.

Three years have passed since I dallied with Harlan Coben. I was going to place Six Years on my wish list because I would so like to get through my TBR pile, but the premise of this stand-alone snared my curiosity. I pre-ordered and waited. Then my excitement disintegrated into confusion. Other than The Woods I couldn’t remember any of the titles of the previous books I read. For the past ten years my husband has been telling me, “We’re getting old.” I’ve always shrugged him off, but I started to wonder. Was my memory crumbling? I hustled over to the bookshelf and read the titles and the book flaps, but the only story that rushed back in its entirety was Play Dead.

What was this about? There are books on my shelves I haven’t read in thirty years and I still recall the twists and turns. So why, other than Play Dead were Coben’s novels forgettable for me?

When Six Years arrived my baffling revelation caused me to proceed with caution. Engaging a childish dare, I refused to read more than one chapter the first few nights. Maybe this Coben guy will reel me in and maybe he won’t. As my nightly reading expanded beyond the one chapter limit, I remembered why I previously devoured five Coben books in rapid succession. The main character Jake Fisher resonates as everyman. This everyman quality is one of the reasons Coben’s novels are so popular. His characters are people we recognize and secretly hope we will emulate if we are ever placed in a similar situation.

I loved Jake’s humor and point of view. But I still found it difficult to slip under his skin. About a third of the way through I understood why. I crave character driven novels and Six Years is all about plot. But Coben knows how to squeeze a plot, it’s another reason his books are bestsellers. Complications mount in each chapter to keep the tension and stakes high, and make it impossible for a reader to walk away.

Then around page two hundred I gained a new appreciation for Lisa Rector’s comment. “…you never know how it will unfold. Take risks. Do the unexpected for the character and you.”

After another near-death experience Jake seeks refuge in a “no-tell motel” and has a light-hearted exchange with the desk manager. The scene was so impromptu I laughed out loud. The dialogue was less than a page in length, but the connection between the characters was so genuine the last remnants of caution on my part disappeared. Jake’s struggle became my own. I read the remainder of the novel in one sitting.

I’m still not certain why I don’t remember the details of four of Coben’s earlier books. Maybe they didn’t have a love interest—romance is a huge hook for me and romance is a factor in Play Dead and Six Years. Or it’s possible that for whatever reason I read those books with less awareness. I may never unravel this mystery.

What I am certain of is Coben’s deft use of characters to reveal information, create complications and provide red herrings. They are three-dimensional, lean and although his books are plot driven, Coben’s everyman characters are the reason we turn the page.

Explore the unexpected twists of Six Years

EVIL AT HEART by Chelsea Cain

Heartsick and Sweetheart reeled me in with the twisted love-connection between detective Archie Sheridan and serial killer Gretchen Lowell. The mysterious hold they have on each other creates a devout fascination for the reader. Evil at Heart threatened my devotion.

The first half of the book made me second-guess my enthusiasm for the first two books in the series. Each time I sat down to read I needed a moment to refresh my memory—and it’s not because I may be a woman of a certain age, but because there were no lasting impressions from what I read previously. When a book fully captures my imagination, even if life forces me to take a hiatus, when I return I’ve never needed to stop and wonder about location or turn the pages backward to find out what happened last. But I repeatedly needed to perform such actions within the first 164 pages of Evil at Heart.

Initially, I was ready to take full blame. Maybe this book’s page-turner aspect was so strong, I was reading too fast for comprehension. So, I slowed down. Nothing changed.

Then I realized my lack of interest was due to the switch in the series focus. The meat of Heartsick and Sweetheart is the Archie/Gretchen relationship. But this duo is subplot in book three. The main action revolves around the murders linked to the Gretchen Lowell fan club, or copycat killers. Once we are in the thick of that investigation the book takes off, however, as I said, this doesn’t happen until the halfway mark.

As a struggling writer, I wondered about this choice. Why did Cain wait so long to get into the action? Is it because she wanted to keep us hooked? Risky business when the result is a lukewarm first half. Did she not go for the big guns at the top because she was afraid there wouldn’t be any ammunition for the rear? Or did she choose to explore this serial killer-fan club tangent in order to recharge her own creative battery for the long haul of the series?

These interesting questions kept me reading. Hmmm. And in the end, I realized these questions don’t need answers because Cain kept me glued in other ways.

With Gretchen and Archie in the backseat, Cain had time to zero in on Susan Ward, the reporter linked to The Beauty Killer Investigations. Susan was my least favorite character in book one and two, but I guess three times is a charm. She is a hopelessly human character, who like a lot of us, is wishing to be so much more. From her quirky way of dealing with tense situations by spewing out trivial facts on causes of death, to her honesty regarding bad choice in men…

“Susan felt a ball of disappointment in her stomach. It was stupid. So he’d had sex with a hot stripper with implants. She had other things to worry about besides another inappropriate crush. She had to focus on finding Archie.”

We have no choice but to root for her success.

The other way Cain keeps us reeled in, is in the way she serves up Gretchen and Archie’s past. This installment provides less background than the other two books, but the way Cain selects the material we do consume proves she is as manipulative as Gretchen Lowell and worthy of our loyalty.

Join the dissection fan club with Evil at Heart.

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.

BLACK LEATHER by Elizabeth Engstrom

I picked this book up along with fifteen other books during the 2010 Surrey International Writers Conference. Elizabeth Engstrom was one of the presenters. I wrote pages and pages of notes about her perspective on the Architecture of Fiction, Sizzling Sex Scenes and how to Polish and Shine a manuscript. I continue to refer back to these notes, but whenever I really need a shot in the arm about how to hook a reader I open up Black Leather and read.

Black Leather was the first book I read from my stack when I returned from the SIWC. I could’ve read the entire story in one sitting, but I needed to savor. Engstrom is a master of tension. Tension reigns on every page and in every sentence.

Since I began my journey as a novelist, everywhere I turn someone is talking about the need for tension. Intellectually, I understand the concept. Reading Black Leather showed me what I couldn’t comprehend. There isn’t a wasted word, sentence or emotion on any page. I was hooked from the opening line and didn’t have a clue about how the story would end—not even as I read last few pages.

Black Leather, an erotic thriller of tension.

MYSTIC RIVER by Dennis Lehane

Mystic River  is my first foray into the complex mind of Dennis Lehane. I am smitten and baffled because I have no idea how he managed to stay under my literary radar for so long.

He’s not quick and punchy like many detective or thrill writers. His prose is woven as if he were an underground magician. The world he reveals to us is authentic, real and gut wrenching. His characters unfold through the routine of life. Yet, against their natural responses of forward motion the horror of violence threatens.

Tension and unrest permeate each page, but Lehane holds no action in reserve. He lets the worst happen, and by doing so, underscores the certainty that the characters will still experience hell before we reach the end.

From the time I started Mystic River I didn’t want to put it down. I’m tempted to put my TBR pile on hold just to get caught up on the works of this master storyteller. Alas, I’m determined to get through the pile on the top of my desk by the end of the year. But fear not Lehane, I shall return.

Click to dive into Mystic River.


I love to read the book prior to seeing the movie it’s based on. I’m sorry to say this did not happen with Silence of the Lambs. The movie is powerful and I’ve probably enjoyed it at least a dozen times. The Oscar winning performances by Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins are so rich I could never bring myself to crack the spine to discover what they may have missed.

But curiosity won and I finally broke the self-imposed ban and removed the book from my To Be Read pile. Two weeks later I wished I’d never seen the movie. Not because the film was a poor adaptation—Harris’s world was recreated with great accuracy—but because I knew too much. Knowing how the events would play out removed a layer of suspense that was beautifully executed by Harris.

Fortunately, in the end my prior knowledge wasn’t a factor in my overall enjoyment of the novel because Silence is a must read for writers and actors. And the why has everything to do with how well Hannibal Lecter is portrayed.

Sure, we know Lecter is called Hannibal the Cannibal and he’s committed nine murders that the FBI know about, but it isn’t until he escapes 2/3 of the way through the book that we actually see who he is and what he’s capable of. By then we already have our emotional hooks into him. Although we know he belongs in maximum security, we secretly root for him to get the view he desires because we understand him as a human being, not a monster. And the fact that he cares about Starling, our hero, makes it hard to push him out of our hearts—even after we witness his savage side.

Harris also ensures our connection with Lecter by not revealing all. We don’t know how his killing nature developed or why he can’t or doesn’t care to stop. Yet, his admiration for Starling makes us hope—maybe even believe—he possesses the ability to be reformed even if the odds are against him.

We are drawn to Lecter because he is a human mystery.

Discovering the quirks and ticks of a character is essential if we want to build believable characters but, like backstory sometimes we need to let go of what we have worked so hard to uncover. By allowing the wealth of information to vibrate beneath the surface of the words we can dazzle readers and keep our writing fresh.

Click to explore the mystery of Hannibal Lecter.

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