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.


GOOD-BYE, MR. CHIPS by James Hilton

Good-bye, Mr. Chips first came to the screen in 1939 and starred Robert Donat and Greer Garson. Donat won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance. This 1939 classic was remade in 1969 as a musical by screenwriter Terence Rattigan and director Herbert Ross and featured Peter O’Toole and Petula Clark.

Hilton’s story also inspired a 1939 radio adaptation with Lawrence Olivier, a stage play, a 1984 serial version by the BBC and a Masterpiece Theatre production in 2002; such is the power of a story well told.

I unearthed this gem of a novella from my closet, where it resided with cartons of other books that had been gifted to me shortly before I moved to New York. When Jocosa’s Bookshelf was born, I sifted through the boxes, donated many books to a local library and placed others like Good-bye, Mr. Chips in my TBR pile. I plucked it from the stack a few weeks ago and read it to my 89 year-old Aunt.

When you are getting on in years (but not ill, of course), you get very sleepy at times, and the hours seem to pass like lazy cattle moving across a landscape. It was like that for Chips as the autumn term progressed and the days shortened till it was actually dark enough to light the gas before call-over. For Chips, like some old sea captain, still measured time by the signals of the past; and well he might, for he lived at Mrs. Wickett’s just across the road from the School.

The narration wrapped around me like the arms of an old friend. The story came through me as if I were a medium delivering information from the other side, or in this case another time—the turn of the century.

Much like England at the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, our protagonist wrestles with change during his tenure at Brookfield, a British boys’ school. The character of Chips, a stogy classics teacher, might well have ended up as a stereotype in less capable hands. But Hilton side-steps stereotype by revealing the warmth of Chip’s heart with each word the character thinks and utters. Mr. Chips does not always get on with everyone, but his compassion, even in the most difficult situations, is steadfast.

Against the genre fiction of today, I fear Hilton’s story might be criticized for its “telling” quality, for Chips’ life journey is recounted more than experienced. Yet, the conversational ease with which the tale is communicated holds a charm that cannot be ignored because Chips’ love of English traditions, Brookfield and the boys in his classroom overpower style.

Good-bye, Mr. Chips is a perfect bedtime story, although it’s impossible to read without a box of tissues.

Please say hello to Good-bye, Mr. Chips


SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER by Fred Waitzkin

If you write, my recommendation is to watch the film before reading Fred Waitzkin’s memoir. I know this is a bizarre request, but trust me the reverse order will pay off.

If you read the memoir first, throughout the film you’ll say: That’s not how the events unfolded, or that never happened.

However, if you see the film—and I hope it is many times over—when you read you’ll be flooded with “Aha!” moments like…So, this is where that moment in the movie came from. That entire scene developed out of this tiny interchange. Wow, that movie character is really a combination of about ten real-life characters.

All of these realizations will shake you out of your writing rut. You’ll gain a new appreciation for the power of extrapolation, discover the importance of truth in fiction and rediscover the key to drama lies in fictionalizing the truth.

By comparing Fred Waitzkin’s memoir to the movie you will also see how simple pieces of any life can evolve into an action packed story without the weight of backstory. Strong action is the result of material chosen wisely.

And for writers addicted, or rather dependent, on workshops and craft books there is no better advice than that of Josh’s teacher Bruce Pandolfini: I am only here to help you look. You have to find the answer yourself.

But Searching for Bobby Fischer is a compelling read even if you don’t write. And an ability to play chess isn’t a requirement to appreciate the journey of this father and son.

Readers will invest in Josh and Fred Waitzkin because they are flesh and blood, flawed and conflicted. Their shared goal, which becomes an obsession, leads Fred to fear he may fail as a father. While Josh—who plays like a Russian grandmaster at the age of seven and is adamant about hanging on to first place because “only first place means anything,”—sometimes only wants to act his age. “If I do good, will you buy me a vanilla shake at Bob Smiths?”

We root for Fred and Josh no differently than we do for the most complex of fictional characters. Their journey becomes our own. Even after seeing the movie countless times, I still couldn’t turn the pages fast enough—especially near the end.

I can’t imagine anyone reading this memoir without being moved. The single-minded passion of Fischer, the Waitzkins’ love of the game, and the sacrifices of the chess players in Russia and Washington Square Park in New York are an inspiration to everyone with a dream.

Searching for Bobby Fischer reminds us to remember the love of the quest, for love is what carries us through the highs and lows.

Strengthen your openings and master your endgame with Searching for Bobby Fischer.


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.


THE WEIRD SISTERS by Eleanor Brown

Eleanor Brown’s Weird Sisters sparked my curiosity from the moment I saw the cover. Above the title is the following quote, See, we love each other. We just don’t happen to like each other very much. The honesty shot an arrow into my gut. Then I discovered the novel was written in first person plural. The clincher was the fact that the sisters were named after Shakespearean characters. I know, my actress slip is showing.

The Weird Sisters was my first experience with a first person plural narrative and I fell in love. As an acting coach, I always talk about how characters live in relationship. How a character relates to others is colored by how they feel about themselves. Brown’s novel is a perfect example of how individual choices impact relationships and vice versa.

This interconnection between characters underscores how no character is minor. All characters must reveal something new about a POV character, otherwise they have no dramatic purpose. A wonderful read for actors, writers and anyone who loves stories about family dynamics.

Think your family is weird? Read The Weird Sisters and compare.


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.


GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell

I’ve experienced the love and angst of Scarlett O’Hara four times on the page—can’t count the times I’ve seen the film. Scarlett’s tumultuous love life is one of the greatest examples of how to keep lovers apart and prevent them from saying what they need to say in order to be together.

But what fascinates me more is the complexity of Scarlett’s relationship with Melanie. She hates her mealy mouthed sister-in-law. Her jealousy is palpable, and yet, Scarlett can never bring herself to do wrong by her—even when it places her own life in danger. This is the kind of inner struggle that enriches a character’s journey and keeps readers turning pages.

Get swept away with Gone with the Wind.


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.


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.


NOT YOUNG, STILL RESTLESS by Jeanne Cooper

When I was ten Dark Shadows premiered. My mother, oblivious to Daytime Television, suggested I watch it because it was about a Governess, Victoria Winters and her charge, David Collins. (It would also keep me out of my mother’s way on that particular summer day.)

I watched and was immediately transformed into a soap opera junkie. Through the years I’ve watched them all at one point or another. I even remember seeing the premieres of One Life to Live, All My Children and Young and the Restless. And like thousands of fans I was witness to the most famous wedding in daytime, the union of Luke and Laura on General Hospital.

Fortunately I have a life, so there were many years when I never even thought of the soaps, and some years when I banned myself from following. Yet, I’m still a die-hard fan with friends in the business. So as soon as I saw Jeanne Cooper’s memoir, Not Young, Still Restless in the bookstore I couldn’t leave without it.

The memoir follows Ms. Cooper from her eighth grade stage debut in Annabel Steps In to her current status as the Grande Dame of Daytime, thanks to her award winning role as Katherine Chancellor on Young and the Restless.

But Jeanne Cooper’s memoir is not about stardom. Hers is an earthy account of a woman who fell in love with the theatre and has spent a lifetime nurturing the magic which happens between actor and audience.

Not Young, Still Restless is a delight. An honest account of happiness and darkness. And here is the twist. Unlike other memoirs that languish in the dark to underscore the narrator’s courage, Ms. Cooper’s journey is a buoyant celebration of life. She holds nothing back in those dark moments, but she doesn’t dwell. Dark periods of life or illness are combatted with light. In her words…

don’t lose sight of the power you have…starve your fear and your illness out of existence by surrounding it with a small, impenetrable psychic circle that prevents it from ever becoming part of who you are.

Words to live by. Whether you’re a daytime fan or not Jeanne Cooper’s life will entertain and inspire.

Click for a Restless joy ride.


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