Book Recommendation – Simon the Fiddler

Paulette Jiles has secured her place among my list of favorite authors with her latest novel, Simon the Fiddler. Set in Texas, 1865, the book paints an evocative picture of life in the young, rough-edged state at the conclusion of the Civil War. It tells the tale of 23-year-old Simon Boudlin, an ambitious Kentucky fiddle player, and “the ragtag band of musicians with whom he travels ,” as well as the lovely Irish immigrant who captures his heart.

I loved Jiles’ novel News of the World for its economy; it’s similar to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (one of my all-time favorites) in the way it delivers richly-drawn multi-dimensional characters and a dramatic story with so few words. Both are slim novels – at roughly 200 pages each in their first edition hardcover formats – that pack a powerful punch.

Simon the Fiddler captivated me for different reasons. It could have been equally potent at 200 pages. Yet, Jiles flexed her descriptive muscles, filling another 150 pages with details of time and place, poverty and longing, music and love. While some readers may be put off by her lyrical and often lengthy description, I was transported. It was an unhurried deeply-satisfying read packed with fully-realized, endearing characters.

In describing Galveston immediately following the Civil War, Jiles wrote, “The lamps in the saloons burned coal oil or whale oil, the beams overhead creaked in the wind of the Gulf, the streets were incandescent under the gas lamps. Sometimes bats streaked through the white light, moths danced in a city of seagulls and scarred buildings.”

Simon loved music and hated cities. He dreamed of owning land near a river.

“There would be a spring of clear water and around it great pecan trees, deer would bed down in the post-oak mottes at night. Wild horses would tread the smoking earth in dimly seen caravans, the breath of the great brown buffalo drifting white in the winter air.”

These are just two examples from a book brimming with evocative description and a strong sense of place, which secured its 5-star rating from me. If you enjoy historical fiction that immerses you in expressive, detail-packed passages that make you slow down and go back to reread them, pick up a copy of Simon the Fiddler. If you prefer a faster-paced read that stirs emotion, News of the World is a fabulous choice.

* If you decide to purchase either of Jiles’ novels, check out Bookshop.org at the links below. A portion of sales at the site supports indie bookstores and authors, including me.


Literary Novel Portrays Life with Huntington’s Disease

Reading novels enables us to understand and feel the thoughts and experiences of another person. Fiction, if it is done well, transports the reader to the fictional character’s world and life. Author Malorie Blackman puts it this way, “Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while.”

An excellent example of this is Anne Pete’s new novel, The Speed of Life, about a woman coping with the fallout of her Huntington’s Disease (HD) diagnosis. HD is a fatal genetic disorder that causes the progressive breakdown of nerve cells in the brain. It deteriorates a person’s physical and mental abilities – usually striking in one’s 30s or 40s – and has no cure. May is National HD Awareness Month, the perfect time to read this heartrending, insightful and, ultimately, inspiring novel.

There currently are about 41,000 symptomatic Americans living with HD, according to the Huntington’s Disease Society of America (HDSA). More than 200,000 are at-risk of inheriting it. HD manifests as a triad of motor, cognitive and psychiatric symptoms, which progressively get worse over time. Its symptoms are often described as having ALS, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases simultaneously. It’s hard to imagine the impact that can have on the lives of people with the disease and of the people who love and care for them.

Pete’s novel sheds transcendent light on those lives with sensitivity, authenticity and literary grace. The story enables you to walk in the shoes of a women coming to terms with a past she tried to ignore and a future she never anticipated.  Please read my full review of The Speed of Life, and consider downloading the ebook at Amazon or your favorite ebook retailer.

May is #HuntingtonsDisease Awareness Month. @AnnePeteAuthor’s novel, THE SPEED OF LIFE, brings sensitivity, authenticity and literary grace to the realities of living with HD. #LetsTalkAboutHD #ReadingFostersEmpathy

If you read The Speed of Life, please share your thoughts about it in the comments below.

To learn more about Huntington’s Disease, visit www.HDSA.org online and follow #LetsTalkAboutHD and #HDSAfamily on social media.


Historical Fiction Makes Us Feel

Novelist Susan Vreeland said, “Historical fiction makes us feel. It presents to us a truth more human than what history books present.” Wise words. In the spirit of that statement, the following historical novels show the human side of history exceedingly well. They make us feel.

  • The Railwayman’s Wife by Ashley Hay
  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
  • All That is Solid Melts into Air by Darragh McKeon
  • The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck.
  • Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones
  • The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman
  • Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

One-Sentence Story Contest

Circa 1950s

The Covid-19 pandemic is bringing the world’s wheels of activity to a screeching halt in 2020 – travel bans, business closings, health worries, financial upheaval. Adding to the weight of these scary things, we must grapple with the weirdness of staying home every day, distancing ourselves from other people, canceling special plans, and hunting for toilet paper. Couldn’t we all use diversion? (e.g. a fun contest and bookstore gift card giveway… keep reading!)

We’re all scrambling for ways to occupy our time and our minds. In my house, that has meant spending a few hours a week in the garage with my husband to sort through the many boxes of old photos we accumulated when his dad passed away. During that process (and speaking of scary and weird), we came across an interesting gem: the 1950s-era black and white photo above.

We don’t know for sure who this is or why they’re wearing masks. Nonetheless, I could not throw the picture away. It’s just too wonderfully weird. Plus, it gave me an idea for a contest that will occupy our minds for a little while and also help support my favorite local bookstore.

Enter to win an electronic gift card from Enchanted Chapters Bookstore.

It’s as easy as 1-2-3!

  1. Write a one-sentence story about the photo and post it in a comment on this blog (required).
  2. Use the Rafflecopter link below to enter the drawing.
  3. Connect and share on social media to get more entries (optional) using the Rafflecopter link.

Entry deadline is midnight April 13. Rafflecopter will select one entry at random, and I’ll email the winner a $25 e-giftcard for Enchanted Chapters Bookstore.

You don’t have to be “a writer” to have a little fun with this contest. Just share whatever your thoughts are when you look at the photo. And then have fun reading the other one-sentence stories.

Rafflecopter link: One-Sentence Story Contest by Jessica McCann

More Weird-Photo Fun

Did you know photographer and writer Ransom Riggs has collected haunting, vintage photographs since he was a child? His collection eventually became the catalyst for his first novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. The best-seller’s plot was inspired by the dozens of wonderful and weird snapshots featured in its pages. Click here to read a New York Times interview with Riggs.

Click here to buy his first book in the series at your favorite independent bookstore through Indiebound.org


Leaves, Stones, Memories, Words

Photo by Lum3n.com from Pexels.

Being surrounded by plants keeps me centered – mentally, emotionally, creatively. My yard consists largely of sun- and drought-tolerant plants – sage, Arizona honeysuckle, lantana, African daisies – nestled among jagged gravel, sandy earth and stone ledges. Inside, a house full of leafy tropicals fills my daily requirement for green life and black dirt. Plants simply make my house a home. And since I write at home, plants also make my office a relaxing workplace.

It’s true, and not just because I’m a nature nut (even though I am). It’s science.

Research from the University of Hyogo in Japan shows that having just one small potted plant on your desk helps reduce stress. The researchers analyzed employee behavior with and without a plant in their offices. The participants were directed to take a 3-minute rest while sitting at their desks when they felt fatigue. Those who had a plant were instructed to gaze intentionally at the plant during their break; some even took things a step further by watering or otherwise tending to the plant.

During the work breaks, researchers measured employee stress levels based on heart rates, oxygen and pulse levels. The results were consistent. Employee stress level “dropped considerably” if they had a plant.

I have four plants in my office and more than 30 throughout my home. Lucky me.

Gazing at and tending plants not only reduces my stress, it nurtures memories and provides inspiration for my #writing.

Gazing at and tending plants not only reduces my stress, it nurtures memories and provides inspiration for my writing. I recently repotted a peace lily that had outgrown its receptacle. As I removed it from the container and gently loosened the tightly packed roots with my finger, I noticed the rocks in the bottom of the empty container.

The first time I had repotted the lily, we were living in different house. I had collected a handful of smooth, colorful river rocks from the backyard to create drainage in the bottom of the pot. Without realizing it, I had brought a piece of that home with me to the new house when the plant moved with us. I had preserved more than one memory in the potted lily. I had preserved 20 years of memories from life in that old house.

After situating the lily in its new vessel, I watered it and fed it. Then I carried the river rocks out to the backyard and scattered them among the gumball-sized gravel. Blended together, they became my past, present and future – an indistinguishable jumble of red, gray, blue and beige hues, of smooth lumps and jagged edges. Just like my writing. Just like my life.

Photo by freestocks.org  from Pexels.

Author Events with Jessica McCann 2020

Desert Nights, Rising Stars Literary Fair

When: Saturday, February 22, 2020, 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

Where: Arizona State University, Tempe, Front Lawn of Old Main

What: Presented as a public extension of the Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference in partnership with ASU Open Door, the Literary Fair presents an afternoon of readings, panels, conversations, and performances from authors, publishers, and other literary organizations from all over the Southwest. 

All fair events and activities are open to the public and free. You do not need to register for the conference in order to attend.

Jessica McCann will be on hand to chat with attendees and sign books. Her award-winning historical novels will be available for purchase, as well as advance copies of her forthcoming nonfiction release, Words: Essays on Writing, Reading, and Life.

Books-for-Treats Exchange: Donate a children’s or YA book for a low-income Halloween trick-or-treater and receive a delicious treat in exchange (packaged cookies, candy bars, Kind Bars, etc.).

In low-income neighborhoods, the ratio of books per child is shocking: 1 age-appropriate book for every 300 children. Even in middle-income neighborhoods, the ratio is a dismal 13 to 1 (Handbook of Early Literacy Research, Volume 2). Yet, having access to books at a young age and learning to read is vital to long-term success.

For the past seven years, McCann has given out books for treats at Halloween. She came across the idea online and did it the first time as a creative way to give away all the books her children had outgrown (i.e. board books, early-reader chapter books, middle grade novels, etc.). It was a huge hit. Many children rarely receive books as gifts, so getting a book for Halloween was a special treat.

And the kids remember the gift year after year. They run up the driveway saying, “This is the book house!” Often, children take their time going through the baskets to find just the right book, while parents laugh and say, “Just pick one!” Teenage trick-or-treaters are some of the biggest fans; they’re both grateful and skeptical. “Are you sure I can just HAVE this?” Every year, McCann and her husband buy more books than the year before, and they still always run out before the night ends.

Books donated during the literary fair will be given to trick-or-treaters in low-income neighborhoods, as well as at UMOM New Day Centers, Halloween 2020. If you forget to bring one, you can purchase a book from one of the fair vendors, including Bookmans.

Visit the ASU website for more details.


Enchanted Chapters Bookstore

“PBS NewsHour” named Phoenix the most autism-friendly city in the world in 2016. The city’s newest indie bookstore, Enchanted Chapters Bookstore, will only help solidify that distinction.

Enchanted Chapters opened its doors in October 2019, as a “youth-focused bookstore working toward inclusion one book at a time.” While the store carries titles for adults (fiction, memoirs, cookbooks, parenting, etc.), it was designed for children and young adults to have a comfortable, inclusive place to relax, learn and grow through literature. It sells a wide selection of children’s books and young adult fiction, as well as comic books, graphic novels, unique toys and book-themed gifts.

The store has a bright and welcoming atmosphere, with lots of natural light from its large storefront windows and a kid-lit themed mural painted by a local artist. It includes a children’s play area designed as a sensory room – a place individuals with autism can go to feel safe, calm, supported and focused. Enchanted Chapters also has two nonhuman staff members: Bellatrix, a hairless sphinx cat; and Potter, a green cheek conure (both named after Harry Potter characters).

Enchanted - PotterEnchanted Chapters already has a full calendar of monthly events. Goings-on include book clubs for all ages, toddler story time, family trivia night and social groups for home school families. Special events for the holidays are also on the agenda.

~~~~~~

Phoenix has a thriving, supportive and inclusive community for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and their families. Here’s a sampling of the organizations based in the city:

Photo credit: Enchanted Chapters


You Be the Judge

j0438678Sometimes you throw your hat into the ring for an interesting opportunity. You figure it’s a long shot. Then you get an email saying you’ve been selected, and you suddenly question whether you have the chops to actually do it. You might even panic a little. That happened to me a few months ago when I submitted an application to be a judge in the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. I was selected, and I felt humbled. Then the UPS guy dropped a box of 50 novels at my doorstep, and I may have panicked a little (or a lot).

I threw my hat into the ring because competitions are an important part of a writer’s journey. I’ve lost count of how many I have entered over the years. I can count on one hand how many I have won. Regardless of the outcome, you learn something from every competition. It’s a brutal exercise that is necessary to one’s growth and improvement. I believe that.

So, I opened the box and opened the first book….

Earlier this week, I completed what I initially thought would be impossible. I read and wrote critiques for 50 books in less than three months. *wipes sweat from brow; celebrates with glass (or two) of wine* It was a big commitment and a good deal of work. It also was worth the effort.

Only three of those 50 novels advanced to the second round of judging. Many of the others featured well-written prose and entertaining stories; they were worthy reads, if not award-winning. There were also a fair number that had potential and missed the mark. I endeavored to be straightforward in my critiques – highlighting areas of strength and offering concrete ways to improve flaws. My hope is that the authors of those diamonds-in-the-rough will tackle revisions with enthusiasm, an open mind and a sense of curiosity. (After all, isn’t that what authors ask of their readers?)

I learn a lot about myself and my own writing by reading/critiquing others’ writing. It can be both educational and humbling. When I’m really lucky, it’s inspirational and pushes me to raise the bar for my own work.

Do you write reviews of the books you read? What has it taught you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.



New Life for a Grand Old Gentleman

One of the reasons I enjoy historical fiction is the genre often takes tired, forgotten history and gives it new life. My latest, non-writing project has done the same.

We recently moved my father-in-law out of his home and into a memory care facility. My in-laws had a great deal of lovely antique furniture – the real deal, hand-crafted pieces, made of solid wood. Many of the items had specific memories linked to them by different members of the family. Each of us seemed to want different pieces, and moving the tables, beds, dressers and cabinets into their new homes went smoothly. The items that held no sentimental value were donated. We all seemed to take some comfort in knowing the furniture would be put to practical use and given new life by other families.

grandfather clock - new

As my husband and I walked through the empty house for one of the final times, all that remained was the grandfather clock. My in-laws brought it with them from Illinois when they moved to Phoenix roughly 46 years ago. Dad had owned a pharmacy in Rockford, where he also sold grandfather clocks (why he sold clocks in a pharmacy will probably always remain a mystery to us).

As they prepared to move the family, one clock remained. So, it became a focal point in the new McCann household. Then history repeated itself, one clock remained. So, it became a new focal point in our home – beside the desk where I write every day.

Unfortunately, the clock was broken. My father-in-law had tried many times to get it fixed. But the grand old timepiece was just too tired. Its steady tick-tock and quarter-hour chimes had been silent for years. Both my husband and I love the clock. We always have. Still, it felt strange having the old man standing dormant in our home.

Then inspiration struck as I was perusing internet photos of bookshelves and libraries (yes, that’s a thing). I ran the idea past my husband, and he approved. My mother-in-law and I had shared a love of books and reading. Both she and my father-in-law were immensely proud and supportive of my writing career. As such, we believe they would have approved, too.

I carefully removed and packed away the clock, weights and chimes. I measured and installed shelves. Then I filled the grand old gentleman with books by some of my favorite authors. I also shelved copies of my own novels. If inanimate objects can hold memories and feelings, I hope this new life has made Grandfather happy. The transformation has definitely had that effect on me.