A Great Man Passes

Leo Bretholz

“Bitterness destroys the person who is bitter…. You cannot feel bitter. You must feel determined.” ~ Leo Bretholz

Leo Bretholz died last night. He was 93 years old, so it should come as no surprise. That he lived this long to spread his message about the horrors of the Holocaust is miraculous in itself. Many obituaries will rightly talk about the great contribution he made as a living historian, tirelessly visiting schools to educate young people about the Nazi genocide and about the Resistance movement in which he played a crucial part. Right to the last day of his life, he was still working  to see that justice would continue to be done in memory of the millions who perished at the hands of the Nazis. In fact, he had been scheduled to testify today before the Maryland House of Delegates, urging them to support a reparations bill that was directed at a French rail company contracted to construct a new portion of the state’s light rail line. I hope the world recognizes the great work he did to raise awareness about the dangers of racism, nationalism, all of those -isms that say “Our -ism is better than yours. Your -ism should not even exist.”

A lot of much better writers than me are going to talk about his midnight swim across the River Sauer to escape Austria as it fell to the Nazis. They will talk about his daring escape from a cattle car bound for Auschwitz, his great friendship with the nuns who helped nurse him back to health, and his work with the Compagnons de France, the Jewish Resistance Group.

I will talk instead about the good humor and patience of a man who worked at a bookstore over thirty years ago. Unfortunately for him, and fortunately for me, the bookstore was right around the corner from the restaurant where my mother worked. I was in my early teens, I think, but she didn’t like to leave me at home alone all day. Sometimes she’d send me down the street to the delightful Sobus family, a stereotypical Catholic family of about ten kids. There was always music and noise and good food there, but she didn’t like to take advantage of them, so on other occasions, she’d tell me to come down to work with her and “go find something to do in the neighborhood.”

What I found to do was pester Leo.

I suppose the first few times the chubby girl with thick glasses and weird hair showed up, he wondered if I was shoplifting. But I always found some bargain book to buy and he must have been able to sense a fellow lover of the written word. He began to chat with me each time I came into the store. I told him I thought I might like to be a writer someday, and he said he was thinking about writing a book too. He recommended books for me, introducing me to the wonderful epics of Leon Uris in particular and to many works of history and poetry. After I read Mila 18, Uris’ tale of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Leo began to tell me his own story of survival.

I was, and still am, in awe of him.

He was always kind to me, always had time to talk to me. My mom came into the store to drag me home one day, apologizing profusely, but he brushed it off and told her I was no trouble. To Mom and me, he was just a nice man who worked around the corner from her. Only gradually did we discover what a huge force he was in raising awareness about the Holocaust. Eventually, my mother moved on to another job and so did Leo. I don’t really remember which of them left first, but I know that we lost touch for many years.

In the summer of 2001, my husband and I moved our family a fair distance from Baltimore, where I’d met Leo so long ago. Mom came along. She was retired now and slowing down a bit, so we moved her into an in-law apartment in our home. One day a couple of years later, we were at the local library when Mom saw a poster.

“Look, it’s Leo!” she cried.

The poster announced a talk and book signing by Leo Bretholz, author of Leap Into Darkness. It was a memoir. “He finally wrote his book!”

We decided to go to his talk. We thought it was important to support him, because sometimes book signings aren’t that well attended. (I hadn’t written any books of my own yet, but I’d heard about book signings where no one buys and everyone just wants to know where the bathroom is.) But Leo had spent decades sharing his story with so many people, and taking time to listen to their own stories, no matter how small. So we needn’t have worried about attendance at his signing. It was standing room only, and the line to purchase his book and have it signed was an impressive sight. We waited until almost everyone had gone, because Mom couldn’t really stand for long periods anymore–all those years on her feet as a waitress had taken their toll. Now remember what a busy life this man had lived, and all the important things that had happened to him, and the fact that he hadn’t seen my mother and I in nearly two decades.

When we stood to have him sign my mother’s copy of the book, he paused and stared at us for a long time.

“I know you,” he said to my mother. And then: “Cathy?”

They embraced and we reminisced for a little while, wishing him good luck with his book. I told Leo I hadn’t written any books yet, but he assured me I still had time to get started.

And so I went home and I did.

He had that kind of effect on people.

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Book in a Minute: Through the Evil Days

Through the Evil Days: A Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne MysteryThrough the Evil Days: A Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne Mystery by Julia Spencer-Fleming

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not my favorite in the generally excellent Clare Fergusson mysteries, but still an enjoyable read. The mystery in this entry focuses on a missing girl and a meth lab operation. You’d think that would lead to a roller coaster plot full of suspense. Eventually, it does take off and the action builds to a satisfying conclusion, but it takes Ms. Spencer-Fleming longer than usual to get there. The reason: a much greater focus on the personal lives of Clare & Russ and two supporting characters, Hadley and Kevin.

Indeed, I would say the mystery and suspense elements of the story are more like subplots throughout the first half of the book, which concentrates on the personal drama between newly married Clare and Russ. The shift to focusing so much on character development was unexpected and definitely slowed down the action.

That said, the twist in the kidnapping plot that comes near the end of the book was entertaining and definitely made for a dramatic climax. However, I wish the developments in the main characters’ personal lives could have been integrated more smoothly with the mystery. I truly respect that Ms. Spencer-Fleming does not want her characters to become static, cartoon cutouts, a la Miss Marple, but the lack of balance between the two stories made this a weaker entry in a generally wonderful series.

Every author is entitled to a stumble, though, so I’ll certainly be coming back for the next book. After all, I can’t wait to find out how the “new addition” to the team of Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne will affect their sleuthing abilities.


Note: Unlike most of my reviews, this one was based on an Advanced Reader Edition of the book provided to me by the author. Getting a free book did not affect my review in any way, but reviewers are now required to disclose this information to readers. (And I hope Ms. Spencer-Fleming appreciates the honest review and isn’t too upset about the number of stars!)

View all my reviews



Book Covers & the Law of Unforeseen Consequences

I try not to use the blog to self-promote, which is exactly the opposite of what you’re supposed to do with blogs. But I’m like that.

Nonetheless, this blog is mostly about my new/old book, Thirty-Nine Again, which was originally released over four years ago by a small indie ebook publisher. I’m sure they did their best, but small indie publishers nowadays seem like the worst of both worlds – you don’t get the kind of royalties you get when you self-publish and you also don’t get widespread distribution in bookstores. So Thirty-Nine Again, the original edition, sold maybe 250 copies. Since my other novel, Love Capri Style has now sold about 25,000 copies at Amazon, I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to move more copies of Thirty-Nine Again in its new self–published edition.

Poor distribution certainly hurt Thirty-Nine Again, as it does most other novels published by very small publishers. But there was another problem with Thirty-Nine Again that I hadn’t foreseen at all. It was this:

Now, I thought this was a pretty awesome cover, and I still do. It’s got the romance, it’s got the danger. The chick is grinning mischievously at the camera, so it’s got the humor of the story too. My biggest objection to this cover was that it looked more like the book should be titled Twenty-Nine AgainBut that’s where Lynn’s Law of Unforeseen Consequences comes into play. Lynn’s Law of Unforeseen Consequences states that the more enthused you are about an idea, the more likely it is that it will blow up in your face.

As it turned out, the age of the heroine on the cover was the LEAST of my troubles. And so I will tell all my aspiring author friends a little secret: It doesn’t matter if you like the cover. If the target audience doesn’t like it, you are going to have a hard time promoting that book. My target audience was, as evidenced by the title, forty-something women. There are two things most forty-something women have – kids and failing eyesight. The first reaction to this cover from even my most liberal, artsy, aging Bohemian friends was, “Oh dear God, I’ll have to hide it in a drawer so the kids don’t see it when they come home.”

The second and far more disastrous reaction was: “Is that two WOMEN?? I didn’t know you wrote erotica! Is this a Lesbian porn novel???”

Because it turns out that if you need reading glasses, but you’re on that threshold where you think you can see clearly enough so you keep refusing to wear them – well, then that slender guy with the longish hair apparently looks to you like HE is a SHE.

Now, I’m as liberal as they come when it comes to sexual orientation, so I have no problem with Lesbians at all. In fact, if Scarlet Johansson was a Lesbian, I – well, never mind. Anyway, the problem here wasn’t that I was morally offended. The problem was marketing. If you’re trying to sell middle-aged moms a chick lit suspense story, they get confused if the cover looks like Gay Fifty Shades of Grey. It also makes local libraries and businesses reluctant to carry bookmarks with the cover image on them. I had to have new bookmarks done that showed only the lower half of the book cover – the title with the gun and roses. Some websites agreed to mention the book in posts but refused to put up an image of the cover. Ultimately, after only three appearances, it made me lose all interest in doing any in-person signings or talks about the book.

When I decided to self-publish a new edition of Thirty-Nine Again, I knew I needed a cover that would more clearly reflect the chick lit nature of the story. I call Thirty-Nine Again “chick noir,” not because it’s bleak and dark (it’s not), but because it combines the self-deprecating humor of good chick lit* with guns and gangsters. I hope the combo works, and I hope you’ll buy the new edition with the improved PG-13 cover by the lovely and talented Rita Baker-Schmidt. Most of all, I hope you’ll be able to look at the cover (even without reading glasses) and know what sort of story you’re getting into.

Next time – we’ll talk about tempting fate by making bad things happen to your characters.

Or maybe the Mayan Apocalypse. It’s getting mighty close, folks, so we really do need to be prepared.

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Books and How to Sell Them

Hah! That got your attention, right? You’re thinking I’m going to tell you how to make millions selling your book. Well, no.

I can tell you that a lot of book selling success these days comes from having three things.

First – a BIG CONCEPT. For example: Girl archer in dystopian future unwittingly instigates rebellion against repressive regime; Orphan boy discovers he’s a wizard and must battle evil super-wizard; Doormatty Twilight heroine knock-off decides she’s okay with being beaten, forced into uncomfortable sexual activity, and dominated by a totally abusive jerk who kinda reminds her of Edward.

Whoa, wait? How’d that last one get in there? How did badly written porn that features main characters who are knock-offs of someone else’s characters get in there? Well, that goes to the second item on today’s list.

Second – CONNECTIONS. It appears to be true that if you are, say, a former network executive with a husband who heads one of the biggest talent agencies in the world, then you can write whatever you want and be pretty sure that one of your buddies at the Club will publish it for you and then one of your other buddies will be happy to help you get massive amounts of free publicity for it. Pretty useful, that.

But what’s the other essential element, you ask? What’s that third thing you’ll need to be a bestseller?

Third – SEX. No, wait, Harry Potter didn’t have that and it was fabulous. MAGICAL CREATURES. No wait, The Hunger Games is brilliantly and relentlessly gritty and realistic. No centaurs or dragons or even intelligent owls, but it’s still great.

Third – GOOD WRITING. No, wait, that unnamed third book didn’t have that.

Third –  COMPELLING CHARACTERS. Huh? Whenever someone can’t explain the success of a certain book (like that one), they say something like, “It has compelling characters.” This means the person speaking happens to like those particular characters, not necessarily that the characters are well-developed or realistic. I find Wonder Woman to be a compelling character because she has an awesome costume and a magic lasso. But that doesn’t mean she’s particularly complex. Really, one reader’s “compelling character” is another person’s total nimrod. So no, it’s not compelling characters either.

Third –  PATIENCE.

Wait, let’s try that one again.


Well, considering how many times J.K. Rowling was rejected, this one is at least plausible. Considering how long it takes to get from “Once upon a time,” to “The End” in writing any story, patience is certainly an essential part of the craft. Far more essential than the BIG CONCEPT or CONNECTIONS or even fantastic writing. Because let’s face it, at least the author of that unnamed third book had the patience to finish the book. And then she wrote a second one. And a third! (Which is a bigger accomplishment than you might think. I was getting tired of writing about sex by the end of my first and so far only really steamy romance. And that was a mere 60,000 words.) PATIENCE, then, is a strong contender for the third thing you need to successfully sell a novel.

But nope, that’s not the third essential thing either.

Real writers know that the Third thing you need to sell your book is A GREAT BOOKMARK. And here is mine.


So now you know the real secret to being a professional author. You’re welcome.

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English: W. Somerset Maugham British writer
English: W. Somerset Maugham British writer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“There are three rules to the writing of a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

– W. Somerset Maugham

I know, right?! If only Somerset Maugham had known about the bookmarks he’d be bigger than Hemingway now!

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Also – yes, I know there’s a typo on the bookmark and the ISBN numbers aren’t filled in yet. This one’s just a draft. But clearly, this bookmark is what’s going to put me over the top. Nora Roberts, watch out!

[Thanks to the magnificent Ms. Rita Baker-Schmidt for another great design.]

Textbook Romance

A while ago, my friend’s college-age daughter was despairing about the boring nature of textbooks and the pain of trying to make the word count for her latest history paper, which was about Hernando Cortes. Her mom and I suggested the obvious things: bigger margins, bigger font and lots of adjectives and adverbs.

Antonio Banderas could totally play Hernando Cortes! We could call it: Hernando-The Passion of a Warrior!

Manly, manly Hernando Cortes my friend’s mom suggested.

This set me off. Why not turn your term paper into a romance novel?! I suggested. Think how much more fun it will be for your professor to read that!

Manly Hernando Cortex gazed out across the glistening morning fields, his long dark hair tumbling in his eyes. In his heart, he knew it was time to leave this glorious, fertile land of Mexico. And yet, how could he tear himself away from — her? His Dona Marina – the one the natives called Malintzin – the woman who had taught him the ways of her people, encouraged his wild dreams and soothed him when the dark visions of blood woke him in the middle of the night? Dona Marina, the mother of his child? Other conquistadores might think he merely used her as a docile slave, but truly she was his soulmate, the woman whose love could save him from his own fearsome rage.

The muscles in his chew rippled as he flexed his fists and contemplated last night’s mysterious dream. What was this strange place he foresaw, this place called Yoo-cah-tan? What did the rivers of blood mean? And why, oh why, was his beloved Dona Marina never beside him in these dreams. . . 

Think what romance writing could do for GEOMETRY!

Euclid hadn’t slept for days. The vision of the lovely Phoenician girl he’d seen in the marketplace haunted him. Although he was muscular and virile, Euclid also possessed a sensitive, caring heart. If only he could free the gentle Daphne from her evil slaveowner, dark-hearted Mephistophanes. Yet Meph was the emperor’s favorite engineer — and Euclid a mere assistant. He could never afford to buy Daphne away from the evil Meph. Unless — unless he could out-engineer Meph on the new Acropolis project and become the emperor’s new favorite! Could he do it though? Was he man enough to best Mephistophanes? Euclid realized he’d need a whole new angle of attack to win this battle. . .

I might actually write these. If sparkly vampires with doormat girlfriends can become a hit, why not the inventor of geometry??? And that gives me another idea. What if Hernando is a VAMPIRE???