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.


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.


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.


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.


I became acquainted with Jael McHenry through Writer Unboxed and Backspace. She looks and sounds a bit like Jodie Foster. I don’t know about her acting skills, but her writing is superb.

The Kitchen Daughter is McHenry’s debut novel—an intriguing tale of Ginny, a woman with Asperger’s syndrome, who discovers she has the power to call forth the ghost of any dead person whose dish she prepares. Intriguing, right?

But what I love more than the mystery that unfolds about Ginny is the way McHenry allows us to see the world through Ginny’s touchstone, food. This unique twist used to communicate the protagonist’s point of view deepens the reader’s emotional investment.

Also, the ability to reveal Ginny’s “personality” through behavior, without ever lecturing us on Asperger’s syndrome, shows us exactly how powerful McHenry is as a storyteller. The Kitchen Daughter is a poignant, delightful tale of healing and hope you won’t want to miss. I’ve consumed this entertaining recipe twice.

Hungry? Scoop up The Kitchen Daughter .

THE SNOW GOOSE by Paul Gallico

A heart wrenching tale. If a good cry is needed this story will open the gates. It’s a short story with the power of a novel. How is this possible?

The Snow Goose Paul Gallico is a the master of selection. He zeroes in on his characters as if he’s looking through a telescope and widens the lense just enough for us to fall under the spell of his vivid prose:

She was no more than twelve, slender, dirty, nervous and timid as a bird, but beneath the grime as eerily beautiful as a marsh faery.

Then he pulls back and moves on.

This peculiar love story unfolds for the reader on a need to know basis. He whets our appetite with fragments of the tale, and it is our hunger and passion for the hunchback Philip Rhayeder and twelve-year-old Fritha that weaves the rest of the story through our imagination and within our hearts.

The Snow Goose is storytelling in its purest form.

I’m a hopeless romantic and a sucker for tales of unrequited love, but my fondness for this tale transcends romance. I was introduced to this classic by my sixth grade English teacher. She periodically rewarded our efforts to master the curriculum by taking class time to read to us. From the moment she delivered these opening lines:

The Great Marsh lies on the Essex coast between the village of Chelmbury and the ancient Saxon oyster-fishing hamlet of Wickaeldroth. It is one of the last of the wild places of England…

My heart told me Gallico had written this story for me, and I was Fritha.

Three more years would pass before I would uncover the nerve to write. But The Snow Goose freed the artist within my soul and I knew my life would be a creative one. This is the power of literature. I have no idea how many times I have read Gallico’s story, or how often I have gifted it to others. But is has always been an anchor of encouragement for me.

Although the book resides on my writing desk, I hadn’t read it in years. Then on September 11th, I read a post by Keith Cronin, author of Me Again, and was transported to the beginning of my journey as a writer. I immediately reread this classic and learned that I loved Gallico’s tale more than before. Thanks, Keith.

Let The Snow Goose soar into your heart.

OF HUMAN BONDAGE by W. Somerset Maugham

A handful of small books exist whose characters capture our imaginations so fully, and the prose is delivered with such precise detail and movement, we can’t stop ourselves from rereading them again, and again. Of Human Bondage is not one of them. But you must devour it at least once.

I have no doubt about the love affair that will form between you and Somerset Maugham, however, his first 100 pages may lead you to believe he isn’t interested in capturing your heart. For many readers investing in his opening will be like watching a black and white film when all prior movie experiences have been color. The style is foreign. But with a bit of patience you’ll slip into his rhythm and his prose will feel like sable.

Do we love our protagonist Philip Carey? Probably not. Throughout the novel the reader may be overcome with an uncontrollable urge to shake him and say, “Dump her and get a life!” Today, our protagonist would probably be on a slew of antidepressants and addicted to therapy. But in the early 1900’s these options weren’t available. So, although we may not love him, we have to admire his stamina as he deals with the emotional pain of his life while his physical security is threatened.

We also cannot help empathizing with his journey—a coming of age story to rival Holden Caulfield. Philip possesses none of Holden’s sense of humor and he lives in a time period detached from our sensibilities, but his search for happiness, love and a desire to understand the meaning of life when life is not a plate of caviar is something we all wrestle with at one point or another.

Philip’s struggle to create a life worth living is the very reason we stay glued to the page. Who hasn’t thought about greener grass in a different job or city? Who doesn’t wonder if their finances will hold out? And show me a heart that hasn’t yearned for an impossible mate?

Of Human Bondage is an expedition into the lives of people who thrive and wither in the company of others, but wouldn’t dare live in isolation. Jump into the fray and explore the delicacies of a time long gone and all too close.

Join Philip Carey’s journey of self-discovery through Of Human Bondage.

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