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.


THE SEA by John Banville

The Sea (2005 Man Booker Prize Winner) is a story built on memory and the immediacy of the present. The past and present coexist like different colored wools woven on a loom. The specificity of Banville’s observations is unmatched. The details, so vivid, evoke emotions and recollections from the reader’s own childhood, which somehow feed immediately back to protagonist Max Morden and the reader is snared.

As his childhood and adult life collide, Max shows us that in the midst of the light and joy of our lives, our ability to comprehend the weight of our experiences is palpable; all we need do is open our awareness. Our transformational potential is mind-bending, and may be the reason—in my humble opinion—we delegate it to our subconscious. But The Sea is more than a story of human potential. It deals with love and loss, truth and fabrication. I dare say, Max Morden’s journey to the sea is a tale to be visited again and again, for each encounter will yield new insights for the reader.

The richness of the imagery and the elegant flow of the prose will coax you to read out loud. If you do, the story will unfold in a blink. I advise a whisper, just enough articulation to appreciate the brilliance of the music on the page. Let the words resonate ever so slightly and they will plunge deep into your heart and leave a tattoo of love.

Banville’s mastery of words and effortless storytelling echoes Virginia Woolf and Michael Cunningham. Yet he is himself—unique. We are fortunate to have him in our midst.

Delve into the magical world of The Sea.



THE RIGHT TO WRITE by Julia Cameron

Julia Cameron became my ally in 1997. We correspond every day. Not as pen pals, she doesn’t know I exist. We meet on the page on opposite sides of the country as we write through our lives.

In 1997 I hit an emotional block in my work as an actress. I often choked in auditions and on stage. The audience couldn’t tell, but I knew. One of my cast mates at the time suggested The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. A few days later I heard an interview with singer k.d. lang. She shared how The Artist’s Way guided her out of a creative block. I bought the book.

Julia Cameron’s words resonated with me like a long lost friend. I read The Artist’s Way and The Vein of Gold and completed every exercise in each book. Did my emotional block in acting dissolve? Yes—in a round about way. Whenever Julia asked what I would like to be doing in three, five or ten years, my answer was always writing, never performing. Once I invested in my words instead of others, I was able to break free from the self-imposed block I had as an actress and my emotional landscape on stage once more grew potent.

On a creative high from the first two books, I snatched up The Right to Write. But after a handful of chapters I felt I was repeating myself and shelved the book. I did however keep writing. Between then and October 2012 I wrote six plays, three novels, a handful of short stories, and collected 35 rejection letters. In the spring of 2011, I attended a writer’s conference where agents said my writing held no voice. Determine to fix the problem I plowed ahead with my frustration in tow until the “choke” of 1997 resurfaced. That’s when I dusted off The Right to Write.

One of Julia Cameron’s gifts is the gentle, playful way she shows us how to lift off our burdens and unlock the bars that separate us from our inherent ability to express ourselves. Books on Craft—the how to books—are essential. The nuts and bolts of any craft must be exercised and mastered. But unless those craft skills are infused with the heart and soul of who we are the end product will lack luster.

The exercises in The Right to Write coupled with daily Morning Pages have energized my writing and brought a new level of commitment to my process. Since last October I have finished the draft of my WIP, completed a third of the next and written several short stories. Although the quantity of writing I’ve generated amazes me, the satisfaction I feel is a result of the weight of the words on the page. A shift has occurred and I couldn’t be more delighted. I am certain to encounter more rejections and rewrites on my way to publication and that’s okay. Julia Cameron has my back.

Writing is all about attractions, words you can’t resist using to describe things too
interesting to pass up.

Unleash your creativity. Embrace The Right to Write.


A COLD AND LONELY PLACE by Sara. J. Henry

Although I do my best to read across bookshelves, my early life can be divided into genre chunks: the romance years, the thriller phase, at least a decade of self-improvement, months where I lived vicariously through memoirs and biographies and, of course, mysteries. I am the ideal mystery reader. My suspension of disbelief is activated on the first line and I’m fully engaged until the end—gullible, oh, so gullible.

I marvel at the mystery writer’s ability to plant red herrings and build suspense until the reader is so wrapped up in the chaos of clues they can’t trust anyone other than the hero. To write an unsolvable mystery seems an impossible task for me. But each time I’ve read a Sara J. Henry novel I’ve been tempted to accept the challenge. I covet her style.

The leanness of her writing keeps the reader and the protagonist, Troy Chance’s attention on the action. By sticking to the facts Henry gives the reader freedom to discover their own emotional connection to the events and characters within the story. Henry’s faith in her readers deepens our faith in her as a storyteller—a winning combination.

Henry’s debut novel Learning to Swim, which won the Anthony Award and Agatha Award for Best First Novel and the Mary Higgins Clark Award, also features protagonist Troy Chance. Reading Learning to Swim is not essential for your enjoyment of A Cold and Lonely Place thanks to the effortless way Henry drops bits of information about Troy’s earlier escapades.

I wasn’t going to ask about searching Tobin’s e-mail account, possibly because I’d
gotten myself into so much trouble last summer downloading someone else’s e-mail.

But my hunch is by the time you finish this second novel you’ll snatch up the first because there is nothing like a well-spun mystery, and Troy Chance is a fascinating heroine. Her no-nonsense, no frills attitude draws us in while her self-awareness seals our desire to be her best friend. Her evolution becomes our own. Troy inspires us to strengthen the best parts of ourselves through the deft way she navigates dicey situations. A Cold and Lonely Place is filled with them. And because Troy is never hundred percent certain about anyone, neither is the reader. Even when all the characters are getting along, the way Henry weaves the tapestry of the story together there is a constant undercurrent of mistrust and foreboding. Nothing is predictable.

Sara J. Henry is able to keep the mystery threads alive until the very end because the only details she doles out are the ones we need to know. She shows writers how easy it is for a character to carry a story without barfing up every scrap of turmoil in their lives. A Cold and Lonely Place and Learning to Swim resonate with us because the characters, although colored by their past, live actively in the present.

Plunge into the present of A Cold and Lonely Place.


THE THIEF OF AUSCHWITZ by Jon Clinch

Just when you think it’s impossible to tolerate another tale about the holocaust, The Thief of Auschwitz sucks you in. Jon Clinch possesses a slight of hand magic with words. Their simple declaration of truth is woven on the page as if he is about to entertain us with a fairytale, except this one is dark and twisted like The Black Swan, and we can’t turn away.

The events of the story stab and gut us and we are mesmerized by the horror. Not because we are evil, but because we are human. Our fascination lies in our need to prepare for the worst, for it is unthinkable that such cruelty exists. Our willingness to observe how others suffer reminds us to give thanks for the fortune in our lives.

What we reap from Clinch’s story is the result of the fine art of selection. Each word piles on top of the next—precise words in exactly the right order—to form sentences that reach into our hearts and squeeze our humanity. His ability to capture, with empathy, a situation he could not have experienced—the entire horrible truth of it—is a gift.

It’s true enough that in the city you never know what’s lurking around the next corner, but in the wide open spaces you just never know, period. Anything could happen. In the city you’ve got a fair chance, but out in the open you could get struck by lightening, or the earth could open right up or you could just get lost without one single thing to help you tell one cornfield from another.

Don’t call it paranoia, either. It’s not paranoia. It’s an acquired response. It’s one more souvenir I picked up at Auschwitz. Try working in the sun and the wind for a year or two, with Ukrainians pointing machine guns at you the whole time—or try lining up in a big open square every day for something that’s ostensibly roll call but that’s really a kind of random selection process for who’s going to get a bullet in his brain this morning—and you’ll decide that a blind alley with a broken streetlamp is a pretty good alternative to the great outdoors. Try watching the clouds race overhead when you can’t go anywhere yourself. Try watching the seasons change.

You’ll end up like me.

The Thief of Auschwitz is a compelling tale of Jacob, Eidel, Max and Lydia Rosen. Their situation portends death, but their hearts ooze with hope, strength in the presence of frailty and courage within a constant state of fear. They are exquisite examples of Sun Tzu’s wisdom that opportunities multiply as they are seized.

You may enter the world of Auschwitz with trepidation. You will exit with the certainty that love is the strongest thread in our lives.

Allow your heart to be stolen by The Thief of Auschwitz.


THE CASUAL VACANCY by J.K. Rowling

I don’t know if writing about a boy who can ride a broom has anything to do with her skill, but the prose of The Casual Vacancy lifts off the page. Rowling’s words transport us without effort from one character’s milieu to the next, while weaving in personality traits with such specificity there is never a chance of feeling adrift.

We know Rowling honed her craft while documenting the complicated life of Harry Potter, but there is no magic in the town of Pagford. An undercurrent of unrest lies within each resident. Their unhappiness runs so deep it festers and causes people to lash out, damage and destroy whoever is in their path.

Anyone who remembers the hell of adolescence will get a vicarious thrill as the teens of Pagford enact revenge. This portion of the tale must have been great fun to write. However, games are not all that is underfoot and Rowling is not afraid to show the ugliness of life.

Much like Stephen King, she presents the cast of characters in isolated bubbles and then allows them to intersect until the crosshairs explode. As a King fan, I was delighted. Then around page 200 my excitement dipped. There are so many characters I couldn’t decide who I was supposed to root for. A hundred pages later, I discovered the fault was my own. Although I knew the story was character driven, for some reason, I expected the twists and turns of plot to take over and drive the novel to the finish. My own expectation took me out of the story.

The Casual Vacancy is pure ensemble, no different than an ensemble piece in the theatre. No character is more significant than another because their angst and dreams are one. The interplay between characters is so deeply rooted they have no choice other than to barrel down the jagged hill together, while exposing the dangers of small town life and the complexities of human frailty.

The domino ending leaves the reader to crawl through the dirt, then just as the last bit of rubble falls, the final words—thanks to a delicate hand—lifts the reader up.

Harry Potter may have been a wizard, but J.K. Rowling holds the magic.

Read The Casual Vacancy.


HYSTERA by Leora Skolkin-Smith

I met Leora Skolkin-Smith at the Backspace Conference in May 2012. I was intrigued by her process. She said a lot of the time she devotes to writing is spent away from her writing materials. Her stories ferment or articulate themselves while she’s lying on the coach or walking. Ms. Skolkin-Smith said, “I never go to the page unless I have something to say.” This writing mantra is evident on page one of Hystera. Her style is edgy, unnerving and forces us to engage at once with our protagonist. Lily’s honesty is so fresh and weighted I envied her insight.

And yet, the intensity may be too much for some. Truth is, I wrestled with the material early on. Not because it was hard to follow, on the contrary—it was easy and possibly too close to home.

This is a novel of introspection, not action. If the reader is not willing, or able to shine a bit of Lily’s mirror onto themselves they will miss the full impact of her journey.

Voluntarily checking yourself into a psychiatric hospital, as Lily does, is an act of desperation squared. But Lily is no weakling. It takes an enormous amount of faith to believe you can heal yourself, if given the appropriate amount of time and space from the world that has undone you.

Hystera is the bravest of tales about the strongest of heroines. Lily’s journey will remind readers of the importance of staying present and the necessity of letting go.

Embrace life’s edge with Hystera.


GEMMA by Meg Tilly

I met Meg Tilly at the Surrey International Writers Conference. I knew her from her film work Agnes of God and The Big Chill—liked her and was curious about what she would bring to the page. I picked up Gemma from the display, turned to the first page and couldn’t put it down.

No light tale. Gemma is twelve years old. She’s kidnapped and molested. Tilly holds nothing back. The reader is drenched in the emotional pain of both Gemma and the man who abuses her. I was appalled to discover, at times, I sympathized with her kidnapper—a perfect example of the potency of Tilly’s writing.

Much like Pan’s LabyrinthGemma is a dark tale that leaves you filled with the hope and resilience of the human spirit. A must read.

Learn from Gemma‘s hope.

Page 9 of 13« First...7891011...Last »