IN ONE PERSON by John Irving

John Irving’s novels are compasses of truth that illuminate our individual paths to enlightenment.

Part of my awakening this time around stems from rereading A Prayer For Owen Meany only a few months ago. Reading about Owen is not essential for you to appreciate Billy Abbott’s tale, but writers may find this particular order a fascinating study into Irving’s writing.

Narrators Johnny Wheelwright and Billy Abbott are core opposites and yet, they share similar roots. They were born out of wedlock and learned next to nothing about their biological father from their mother. A grandparent and stepfather were significant role models. And both boys were educated within the confines of a private school in a small New England town, where community theatre played a large part in their lives. But what they share is less important than the personal issues of identity these characters wrestle with.

We are who we are, aren’t we?

Who characters are and what they are willing, or not willing to stand for is a major theme in Irving’s work, and one of the reason I never grow tired of his stories. He draws me into worlds of deeply flawed individuals whose quirks and obsessions appear foreign. Then, in the end I realize the sentiments of the main character are my own; or maybe they have become my own.

Gender issues are a common struggle today. Fortunately, John Irving has turned on the light. Through the life of one particular bisexual man, In One Person will dare you to be a better person. Open your heart and expand your definition of tolerance with John Irving’s thirteenth novel.


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.


BY NIGHTFALL by Michael Cunningham

Michael Cunningham scores again with By Nightfall. I don’t know how he’s able to read my mind, or tap into the love and pain of my heart, but he does it book after book. Each one of his characters is a manifestation of some aspect of my personality.

He owns the secret of how to connect through words. Cunningham’s novels are not action-packed, yet readers are driven to turn the page to uncover how his characters will cope with the turmoil of their lives. If you’re a writer and struggle with character development, look no further—Cunningham will show you the way.

The observations and realizations his characters make reflect a universal truth we may not speak of, but recognize without question. His characters explore darkness, but hope reverberates. His themes spark tension unlike any plot point. And no author captures the nuances and energy of New York better. If you’ve never fallen into Cunningham, take the plunge. By Nightfall you’ll be a fan.


ON WRITING: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Whether you’re a novice or a seasoned writer this memoir was written for you.

In an age when the publishing market changes on a daily basis, it’s easy to get sidetracked by social media networks and blindsided by craft books that promise to enhance everything from your understanding of plot to honing the ever important logline.

A writer can have a meltdown just trying to determine which blogs or books will best serve him. And if, like me, your journey to publication has yet to reach fruition, you may often feel bogged down by the weight of finishing the manuscript—especially when you’ve moved beyond the first few drafts. If either of these states drag you into despair save yourself with a shot of Stephen King’s On Writing.

It’s a no-nonsense book filled with humor, heart, honesty and the best writing advice around. From honoring The Element’s of Style’s rule, “Omit needless words,” to King’s own mantra, “Write a lot and read a lot,” we learn how this prolific writer evolved and still thrives through his love of story.

King’s passion for writing is undeniable and contagious. I’d wager On Writing has sparked more writers to return to the page than any other craft book.

You can enjoy it in print where you can highlight and take notes, or you can listen to King’s narration of the audio version. I’ve done both and will continue to do so because there is nothing better than a good story.

Write On and Write Strong with On Writing.


A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY by John Irving

I have spent every season of the year with Owen Meany. My first encounter was the summer I played Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Playing a fairy is heady work. Owen grounded me. The following fall I started to write plays. My head overflowed with character voices. But since none of them were as distinct as Owen’s voice I read A Prayer for Owen Meany a second time. A few years down the road I gave birth to my third son. Newborns spend a lot of time nursing. I infused our bonding time with literature. Possibly because he was born on Friday the 13th, we began with the work of Stephen King and turned to Owen Meany in the spring. My son loved Owen too. He laughed and kicked his legs whenever I read Owen’s lines.

I dusted off my copy of A Prayer for Owen Meany in January and read it in weekly installments to my 89-year old Aunt. We finished last week. After spending the winter with Owen Meany the spring looks a little less promising. When I asked my Aunt what we should read next she said, “I don’t know. That Owen is a hard act to follow.”

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or
because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was an instrument
of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian
because of Owen Meany.

If there is an opening in literature more haunting or compelling then this, I haven’t read it. These words like Owen Meany, force me to move forward not only in the story, but in my life. He is one of the most inspiring fictional characters around.

I’ve met several people who do not care for this particular novel by John Irving. They scrunch up their noses when I mention the title because they don’t like the narrator Johnny Wheelwright. My fondness for the story made me defensive whenever I heard such tosh twenty years ago. I am no longer defensive.

Johnny is a dishrag next to Owen Meany. He lacks initiative and his personality is so neutral he can’t even get laid. But this is exactly why he is the perfect narrator for the story. Owen’s unconditional and unwavering faith means nothing to the reader without Johnny’s endless confusion about life. Irving’s choice to lay such opposites side-by-side forces the reader, just like Owen’s sacrifice forces Johnny to take a stand.

YOU HAVE TO MAKE A DECISION…IF YOU CARE ABOUT SOMETHING, YOU HAVE TO PROTECT IT—IF YOU’RE LUCKY ENOUGH TO FIND A WAY OF LIFE YOU LOVE, YOU HAVE TO FIND THE COURAGE TO LIVE IT.

This is one of the many reason’s I love John Irving. He is not shy about examining the issues most people refrain from talking about like death, religion, abortion and politics. When I picked up the novel this time I feared the story might feel dated because of the backdrop of the Vietnam War. I was mistaken.

The political unrest and arguments against the war in Owen’s and Johnny’s world seem to have more resonance today. Or maybe the relevance only feels stronger because, like Johnny Wheelwright, I have grown and experienced enough in life to take a stand.

For me, A Prayer for Owen Meany is a book that keeps on giving. I uncover more about the characters and myself each time I witness the journey of these inseparable friends.

Discover what you believe with A Prayer for Owen Meany.


THE DANGEROUS ANIMALS CLUB by Stephen Tobolowsky

His name may not be familiar, but chances are you’ve invited Stephen Tobolowsky into your home on more than one occasion. Some nights his visit may have occurred while you were in your pajamas. That is, if you were curled up on the sofa watching television. If you’ve ever watched Thelma & Louise, Groundhog Day, Deadwood or Glee Tobolowksy has entertained you. But because his private life isn’t fodder for magazine covers you still may not be able to picture him. No matter. By the time you finish his memoir the essence of Tobolowsky—man and actor—combined with the life lessons he shares will make it impossible for you to forget him.

That said my relationship with this book was of the love-like variety. My theatre background made me long to fall madly in love, but I found it difficult to move beyond the handholding stage until chapter ten. The early chapters seemed to get lost in translation. The director inside me kept whispering, “This material would be funnier as a Stand Up Routine.” I was also disenchanted with the structure of the chapters. They often felt like a Long Island Iced Tea minus the vodka, tequila, gin and rum. What we got were childhood memories sandwiched between recent job experiences and the chronological unfolding of Tobolowsky’s acting career. These individual tales were interesting, but I hungered for a stronger trunk for the stories to hang on.

What kept me reading was Tobolowskys journey of self-discovery. For amidst, what was for me a chaotic style of storytelling, this character actor continued to unearth priceless insights about acting, relationships and identity.

Fairly or unfairly, many people are tried in life. The mistake people make is that they think the trial is a sign of failure. It’s not. It’s only a doorway that leads to who you really are.

These were the moments that led me to channel Oliver Twist, “Please, sir. I want some more.” They rattled my socks, made me take notes and offer thanks to one of my best friends for recommending the book. Tobolowsky’s wisdom also prompted me to do a bit of research and I was happy to discover his blog. His posts on acting are spot on and worthy of your time just like his memoir that is bound to encourage you to rewatch some intriguing films.

Check into The Dangerous Animals Club.


THE RIVER WITCH by Kimberly Brock

A ballerina, a ten-year old and an alligator walk into a bar…Interested? If not, you will be.

The River Witch captivated me like the ghost stories my friends shared around the campfire. The longer the tale the closer we sat together. We huddled out of fear and because we didn’t want to miss a word.

Opening pages ground readers in character, conflict and either lead us to care about the main character(s) or not. Kimberly Brock leaves no other option than to invest in her dueling narrators, Roslyn Byrne and Damascus Trezevant. Facts pummel the page the way a boxer’s fists attack a speed bag and fuel the reader’s curiosity, for Roslyn’s character defines mystery. And Damascus? She is spunky, determined and moves forward on blind faith—a quality we lose as adults when we need it most.

Few characters are as perfectly matched as Roslyn and Damascus. Two lost souls testing and daring each other to prove themselves worthy of life. These separate, yet interrelated character arcs are equally intriguing. But while the mystery and evolution of Roslyn is the main focus of the novel, I have to say Damascus is the character that drove me to turn page after page. I couldn’t stop thinking, “Why?” Why do children’s voices grab our attention? Why do child characters often reach further into our hearts then adults?

These questions nudged me to reexamine my fascination with Tillie from Up from the Blue by Susan Henderson and Gemma from Meg Tilly’s Gemma. Here is my realization. Children draw us in because a part of every adult still needs to be healed, and the character trait the adult needs to strengthen in order to mend, lies within the child they are drawn to.

We are vehicles of change and Brock’s characters encourage us to step away from fear and into the hope that true change offers us.

“I never done nothing like this,” Ivy said, breathless. “Just took off without nobody.
Something about you, Roslyn, when I’m with you I think I can do all this stuff.” 

The River Witch is a complex and magical tale of broken souls struggling to stay above the tide of loss and the inevitable, yet unexpected force of love that heals them.

Experience the spellbinding power of The River Witch.


WHEN DARKNESS LOVES US by Elizabeth Engstrom

Black Leather was my introduction to Elizabeth Engstrom. This erotic thriller had such punch I immediately snatched up all of her books. My excitement doubled when I discovered a reprinting of her first book. 

When Darkness Loves Us contains two novellas: When Darkness Loves Us and Beauty Is…. I devoured the book in 2 days—not because novellas are quicker reads, but because I was riveted. Engstrom’s debut proved what I suspected all along, she is a natural writing master. Her characters are bold. They make choices that shove them into corners and force them to risk more. This risk-taking is why I’m a fan, both as a reader and as an aspiring writer.

Reading Engstrom reminds me to push out of my comfort zone as I write. When I read for pleasure she takes me to worlds I never imagine, then rips away all sense of security. For instance, the novellas in When Darkness Loves Us are signature Engstrom—edgy and dark, but within these disturbing tales she somehow manages to lead the reader to believe there is hope for a happy ending. Then the endings twist and the happiness of the characters is questionable.

My initial reaction to the twists was disappointment—but not for long. The endings are true for each of the character’s situations and fully believable. This is the mark of a fierce risk-taker. And I applaud Engstrom for her commitment to telling the story that needs to be told, rather than writing a version that would please the masses. Elizabeth Engstrom may not be for everyone, but if you crave truth with an edge and twisted surprises she may become your new favorite.

Turn out the lights for When Darkness Loves Us.

(Cautionary note: The copy editing in this reprint is poor, but it doesn’t destroy the read.)


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


THE PROMISE OF STARDUST by Priscille Sibley

Reading The Promise of Stardust is like indulging in Parisian chocolates. The substance is so rich in flavor you must take time to savor every morsel. Stardust is one of the most romantic and beautiful books I’ve read in a long time. I cried through the last twenty pages and for half an hour after. Sibley’s writing touches the reader’s soul because she isn’t afraid to open the hearts of the characters. Love pours from each page and carries the reader away.

My experience with The Promise of Stardust reminds me of when I saw Beaches in theatres. I went with a dear friend. We laughed and cried so hard at the end we took our tearful selves out of the theatre without a word and cried some more in the restroom. About halfway home my friend broke our silence with, “So, what do you think?” Without hesitation I said, “Some movies shouldn’t be analyzed just enjoyed.”

I believe this is true for Priscille Sibley’s debut. What Matt and Elle Beaulieu go through is so powerful and personal the reader’s response is personal too. So personal it is difficult to express the story’s poignancy. As a reader I am without words.

As a writer I am in awe of the seamless way Sibley uses the elements of craft. Placing a pregnant woman, who was a former astronaut, in a vegetative state raises the stakes right from the start. Then once Matt decides to save their child by keeping Elle on life support, Sibley pits not only the media and activists, but his entire family against him. The obstacles that follow increase the tension and play counterpoint to Matt and Elle’s love story that unfolds throughout the novel. But the Beaulieu’s love story is not void of rough edges, and is one of many reasons readers will connect with Sibley’s novel. Matt and Elle are flawed, make mistakes and often fail at communication, just like us.

The Promise of Stardust is so plausible and the characters are so real the reader can’t avoid speculating how they would react if they were placed in the same circumstances. Priscille Sibley has offered up a novel that will tug at your heart and engage your mind long after Matt and Elle’s journey ends.

Reach for love. Reach for The Promise of Stardust.


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