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.


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.

HEARTBURN by Nora Ephron

Every word in Heartburn oozes with the quintessential voice we have come to associate with Nora Ephron. From her honesty to the quirky way she turns something as mundane as ordering lunch into an historical event, we are entranced. Paragraph after paragraph she dances around an issue only to stab us in the funny bone with a two-word sentence and we listen, and fall in love all over again.

Nora Ephron is the Gypsy Rose Lee of writers. She has a gimmick, a style of her own that no one will ever match. This is what I have loved and admired about her work and what I will always miss. Whenever I remember that she is no longer here to infuse us with her perspective on the trivial pet peeves that send our lives into chaos, my heart sags. Thank goodness she had the courage to share.

Heartburn, her fictional debut, is a light-hearted, yet truthful documentation of how one woman, Rachel Samstat, comes to terms with the end of her marriage. Rachel’s first-person narrative reels us in from the opening line as she shares the intimate details of her thoughts and emotions. There is no set-up, no preparation. Rachel offers up the play-by-play and we devour each twist and turn with pleasure.

This joy ride is not all ha! ha! Even stellar comedians need to pull back from the zingers to set up the next bit. Many times throughout the book, our hearts go out to Rachel and we say, “Aw,” before she rallies with a turn of phrase, or discovers another hitch in her already less than perfect life.

Rachel Samstat and Nora’s ability to move forward no matter what is one of the reasons we remain tuned in. It is also one of the reasons we are able to forgive the hole in the book. We forgive the weakness in Heartburn because the author, through her protagonist admits the flaw when she apologizes for not including more recipes.

It’s hard to work in recipes when you’re moving the plot forward. Not that this book has an enormous amount of plot, but it has more plot than I’ve ever dealt with before. [At least] this one has a story with a beginning and an end…What about middles you may ask. Middles are a problem. Middles are perhaps the major problem of contemporary life.”

If Ephron’s essays tickle you, you’ll love Heartburn because seventy-five to ninety percent (I’m covering my ass with the numerical spread since I’ve never been a figure whiz.) of the novel reads like an essay. In addition, if you have read the last two essay collections, I Feel Bad About My Neck and I Remember Nothing, you will notice a lot of what goes on in Rachel’s relationship history is nothing new for the reader. Rachel’s history is Nora’s history. That said, if you’ve been charmed by Nora, Rachel will charm you as well. If not, you may be frustrated by the lack of characterization, conflict and tension, and you may wonder where’s the beef, which brings me back to the opening.

The beef lies within Ephron’s voice. She mesmerizes, then leads us like the Pied Piper and only in retrospect do we realize she left us a smidge hungry, unless you are a writer. If so, you can covet, admire and when the muse moves you, attempt to dissect the seamlessness of her voice to discover a way to enrich your own.

If you are looking for a novel to pass the time as you fly from New York to Los Angeles, commute from the suburbs into the city, need fun material for vacation, or an entertaining read after a long day, Heartburn is the novel for you.

Savor the Heartburn of marriage.

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


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.

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