UP FROM THE BLUE by Susan Henderson

Books allow us to run away from our lives. Sometimes the world we escape into and the emotional journey we experience is a joy. Other times the events within those bound pages make us appreciate our real life. Whether I end up coveting another world or not, whenever I read a book I marvel at how we are all connected. The connection might happen through a turn-of-phrase, or perhaps the situation is what resonates and binds us. Either way we are the stuff that books are made of and this is why we are drawn to the characters within them. This truth permeates throughout Susan Henderson’s Up From the Blue.

When Chekov said, “Life is a course business,” he might have had Henderson’s protagonist in mind. Eight-year-old Tillie Harris’s life is hard. 1975, the year her mother disappears, is the hardest ever. Her father and brother do their best to treat the mother’s absence as a minor blip in their lives. But the loss of her mother is a major episode of chaos for Tillie. As a result she is 100% emotional and barrels through life with all the impulsiveness we expect of an eight-year old girl. And because Henderson capture’s Tillie’s traumatic youth with such accuracy, in the beginning, I often felt I was no longer an adult.

Tillie’s childlike insistence and the strength of her will is so powerful, when she uncovers the truth we fear her discovery is false. The uncertainty of what to believe is what kept this reader hooked. I even began to contemplate how easily a person’s desires and hopes could turn against them if they lacked emotional support.

When a novel prompts us to step out of the immediate situation and examine a grander scheme, we know we are in the hands of a seasoned writer. Up From the Blue shows us that Susan Henderson is such a force.

Yet, as much as I was drawn to Tillie and empathized with her plight, the book vibrates with such courage I never worried about her. The strength and power of Tillie’s hope lead me to believe she would be okay even before I knew whether or not the ending was going to be a happy or sad one. My lack of concern puzzled me.

Then the pieces fell into place. Up From the Blue begins and ends with Tillie Harris as an adult and on the verge of giving birth to her first child. Although the early labor forces her to connect with her estranged father and is a logical springboard for her to remember 1975—the most difficult year of her life—it didn’t work for me.

Henderson’s child protagonist wins our hearts in the opening. We are at her side as she catapults forward, back and sideways against the external forces that shape her life. She has dreams, hopes and goals. She explores different ways of coping, forces her family to face the truth and question their own choices. Her actions lead Tillie to discover her own truth and her realizations cause her to change. Why wasn’t that enough?

Henderson does well to connect Tillie’s world as an adult to the past with two additional chapters in the middle of the book, but although they work technically they removed this reader from the story. I’m not a fan of frame stories, so I’m willing to admit my reaction to Henderson’s use of the frame may be colored by my general dislike of them. However I, personally, still believe the impact of her experience would have been stronger left raw.

Yet, disliking frame stories is not a reason to avoid UP From the Blue. In seventh grade I disliked Mr. Koss’s rule that everyone had to sit facing the front of the classroom. No one was allowed to turn to the back of the room, not even when a student was answering a question and Mr. Koss was standing in the back. His response, “Face front. Nothing is written on my face!” Mr. Koss had a lot of rules, And he was my all time favorite English teacher. I’m not a fan of frame stories, but it is impossible not to fall under the spell of Tillie Harris in Susan Henderson’s debut.

Examine the power of hope with Up From The Blue.


THE ART OF LEARNING by Josh Waitzkin

If you’ve ever thought success has passed you by, or you aren’t special enough to achieve your dreams, Josh Waitzkin’s memoir will rekindle your passion and prompt you to act.

The Art of Learning is divided into three sections: The Foundation—Josh’s rise to National Chess Champion, My Second Art—Josh’s assent to Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands World Champion and Bringing It All Together—concrete application of the lessons learned for repeated success. The first two thirds of the book were exhilarating in a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon flying kind of way. I moved into the last phase of the book with enormous hope and crashed immediately upon entry.

Anger crept in. I am embarrassed to say I was angry with Josh Waitzkin. In some ego-centered corner of my brain jealousy raged. “Of course, he excelled. He had the time and a support system that made his explorations possible. But would he have been able to rise to the top of the Chess and Push Hands world if he had to wrestle with a day job and raise children, while balancing the budget to pay the mortgage and keep the car running?”

Then I reminded myself of Bobby Fischer and all the chess players in Washington Square Park—Masters and Grandmasters among them—who live below the poverty line because they have devoted themselves to the art of chess. In that moment, I knew I was being unfair to Josh. I wasn’t angry at him. I was mad at myself. Josh’s fortune stems from the fact that he recognized early on, how important it was to be true to himself, his voice and his heart. I cannot say the same. I am a late bloomer. Fortunately, I am open to inspiration, something Waitzkin’s memoir offers on every page.

Waitzkin brings Self-Awareness to a new level. Although his accomplishments in Chess and Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands seem magical, his journey has not been without struggle. He admits to feelings of anger and discusses the moments when ego interfered with his game. But he never beat himself up. It takes courage not to fall under the weight of our mistakes, not to let our missteps cloud our future choices, or muck up our instincts. Waitzkin gains our admiration with his honesty, while he underscores the importance of learning through loss.

The Art of Learning dispels the notion that success comes from luck or some secret formula not accessible to the masses. Waitzkin shows by example that his achievements in the world of chess and martial arts are the result of hard work, or rather his commitment to understanding his game from the inside out. In other words—homework. The task we dreaded all through school and hoped we would never have to indulge in again once we received the diploma.

Yet, homework is just another word for studying the intricacies of the game, the art or the craft we love. Isn’t homework the very thing Jackson Pollack and Vincent Van Gough did, on a daily basis, to uncover their own unique form of expression through the medium of paint? If we really love what we are doing and if we allow our hearts to guide us, going deeper will never be a chore because there is no other choice.

There is a powerful moment in the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer when Fred Waitzkin tells his son, who has fallen into a slump, that he doesn’t have to compete.

Fred: You don’t have to do this anymore. You can give it up and that’s all right with me.

Josh: How can I do that? I have to win.

Fred: But you don’t…

Josh: But I do, I do.

Fred: But why? It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a game.

Josh: No, it’s not.

When we have found what it is we are meant to do, from programming a computer to figure skating, the hours needed to excel no longer matter. In fact, the hours we put in never seem enough because we are doing what we love. Our passion drives us to find the art in what we are doing.

What Josh Waitzkin presents to readers in The Art of Learning is nothing that hasn’t been done by others like Picasso or Mozart. But what he has done, that these and other masters of their craft haven’t, is share his discoveries and provide us with a plan to uncover our own system for success. This is another lesson that comes through in Waitzkin’s book. In order to excel in our chosen fields we must find ourselves in the work, bring our personality into play and let our voices resonate.

The Art of Learning is a book to reference again and again. It will inspire, guide and ground you when the inner critic rises to snuff out your passion and halt your progress.  I can’t guarantee that the application of Waitzkin’s discoveries will lead to World Champion Success. However, I am willing to bet this new perspective will make your journey a happier one. I will recommend this book for the rest of my life.

Rise to your next level of excellence with The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance.

Happy New Year!


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.


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