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.


FULL DARK, NO STARS by Stephen King

Like many children I was afraid of the dark. Ghosts lived under my bed and in my closet. The only way I could fall asleep was to pull the covers over my head. But stories never scared me. At least, not until I read Stephen King’s The Shining.

I was older then and living in an apartment on the thirteenth floor of a dorm in Illinois. I could see cornfields for miles and that summer was jammed full of sunshine. So it was a shocker to discover that as soon as the sun dipped down it was impossible for me to engage in the world of the Overlook Hotel. It took me six weeks to finish the novel. But I was hooked on King.

His characters tap into layers of myself I am oblivious to until he calls them up. This is how he keeps me turning pages book after book. His genius hit an all time high for me in Full Dark, No Starsa collection of four novellas. I’ve never been so frightened over the written word. He spares no detail and refuses to go soft on emotion. The characters within these stories are slammed into their worst nightmare and embrace every second of the terror. King writes without apology and we attach ourselves to his characters’ souls as a result. If you like to be spooked, need inspiration as a writer, or simply want to escape four times over, Full Dark, No Stars will deliver.


FALLING UNDER by Danielle Younge-Ullman—2011

When it comes to movies it doesn’t take much for my faucet to run. I need a box of tissues for the end of Space Jam. Does that embarrass me? No way. There is nothing quite as wonderful as my heart in overdrive and I don’t care who notices. Such was the case with Younge-Ullman’s debut novel Falling Under.

When I coach actors, my ultimate goal is to help them figure out how to allow their characters to feel raw enough to experience the point of pain, which lead them into their present situation. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Younge-Ullman has figured out how to do the same thing on the page.

Falling Under exposes Mara Foster’s pain, then rips through it with a sickle. The writing is raw and honest in a way I have never seen before. No sugar-coating. FU is a story you can gnaw on while your heart rides through hell and back. A page-turner deluxe. A must read for writers and actors who want to discover what they’re leaving out of their own work and anyone else who loves a good cry.

Click to Fall Under the spell of Danielle Younge-Ullman.


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.


THE LITERARY LADIES GUIDE TO THE WRITING LIFE by Nava Atlas

How I wish The Literary Ladies were available for a consult when I was in college. Armed with the no-nonsense determination of Louisa May Alcott and the passion of Anais Nin, I might’ve had the nerve to have a showdown with my English professor—the one who said my writing was hopeless. Fortified by the words of Virginia Woolf and Madeleine L’Engle on how to battle inner demons, maybe I could’ve said, “You’ve given me a lot to think about, but I’m a writer and one day my words will be in print.”

But I digress. The Literary Ladies Guide to the Writing Life is not just for writers. It’s a celebration of women who were ahead of their time, an army of re-enforcers to bolster the patience and persistence of those who are striving to beat the odds, a history of truth, and a diary of faith. This Guidebook is capable of inspiring anyone with a dream.

But wait, there is more…

The layout of this book is so divine—thanks to Nava Atlas’s power as a visual artist—you’ll find yourself reading the material in multiple ways. You can devour it like a novel cover to cover, zero in on the chapters that apply to your immediate needs, such as Developing a Voice or Rejection and Acceptance, or absorb everything about one Literary Lady at a time—you have twelve lovelies to choose from. No matter what reading preference you have, I’m certain this is one Guide to the Writing Life you will revisit again and again.

Bask in the wisdom of The Literary Ladies.


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