People always ask authors, “Are you working on another novel?” The answer is yes. Always yes. Yet, we all write and create at a different pace. I’m an avid reader, too, so I understand the enthusiasm and anticipation one feels while waiting for a favorite author’s next book. So without further ado, I’ll share a brief, sneak peek at the idea board — imagery and themes — for my current historical novel-in-progress. Enjoy!
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 #ReadingFostersEmpathyTweet
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.
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
Writers compose many sentences, scenes and chapters that their readers never see. It may be lovely prose. Yet, for one reason or another, it simply doesn’t fit in the final work. Each writer handles this differently. Some click delete, and never look back. Others hold on to those snippets in the hope that someday, somehow, they might find them a home. I fall in the latter category.
The following unedited scenes are from an early draft of my second novel, Peculiar Savage Beauty. They offer a glimpse into the lives of the characters during Christmas in the Great Depression and Dust Bowl era, of people finding small joys during even the most challenging of times.
The novel went through many rounds of edits. At some point, these pieces were cut. In the big picture and flow of action, they just didn’t quite move the story forward in the way all scenes must. I held on to them, because they still speak to me.
Now that the novel has been published, I’m giving these scenes a new home – for my readers who fell in love RJ, Woody, Ethel and the whole quirky town of Vanham, and for myself, who did the same.
Happy reading, and happy holidays!
December 24, 1935
Late Autumn brought a few more rain showers. Just enough to tease a little bit of life from the earth and a little bit of hope from the people of Vanham. Tiny green shoots of red winter wheat and buffle grass began to peek up in some of the pale fields and sand dunes. As the temperature continued to drop and the winter holidays approached, some folks even entertained the fantastical idea of a white Christmas.
At the Tugwell home, bowls of bright red cranberries and plump white popcorn sat on the kitchen table. Minnie narrowed her eyes and stuck out her tongue to thread a needle. Alternating berries and popcorn, she poked the needle carefully through each, creating a festive garland. There would be no Christmas tree this year. No gifts. But there was no reason why she couldn’t brighten up the place with a bit of holiday color.
Ernie shuffled out of the bedroom, rubbing his lower back with the palms of his hands.
“Have a good nap, Pa?” Minnie asked without looking up from her work.
He rolled his shoulders, working out the stiffness in his joints that always came with the cold weather. Then he walked over to the table and inspected Minnie’s project.
“Making garland, huh?”
She said yes, waited for the rebuke she knew was coming next.
“Ain’t that a bit much, times being what they are?”
Ernie grunted, scratched at the stubble on his neck.
“Besides,” she added, “I can feed it to the chickens after. It’ll be a nice treat for ‘em. Won’t go to waste.”
Ernie watched as his wife of forty-odd years picked up another cranberry, gently pushed the needle through its shiny skin and slid the berry down the thread. He gave her shoulder a quick pat.
“We can hang it above the door,” he said.
Minnie smiled. “Yap.”
He watched her work a moment more. Then shuffled to the front door, took his coat and goggles off the hook.
“Gonna go check on the north field,” he said.
“Get the chickens in the coop on your way back,” she said without looking up.
The dust drifted in from the south, an auburn fog, thick and unhurried. Red earth from Oklahoma seemed a fitting shade for Christmas Eve, and the storm had not deterred Ethel as she dressed for a late supper and Midnight Mass with friends. She’d used twice the usual pins to secure her hat and extra towels to wrap up her dessert dish. She would not let the wind and dust get the better of her. Not tonight.
“Ethel, dear, come in. Come in,” Marjorie embraced her friend and pulled her into the house. “I’m so glad the storm didn’t keep you away.”
“I’d have crawled here on my hands and knees if I had to,” Ethel said, hugging her friend a heartbeat longer than usual. She and Marjorie had been friends for more than thirty years.
“And tear your hose?” Marjorie said, punctuating her question with a snort.
Ethel handed over her dish – bread pudding with walnuts and cranberries, a Christmas Eve tradition. She removed her coat and hung it on a hook by the door.
Marjorie’s two granddaughters bolted into the room and threw their arms around Ethel’s legs.
“Mrs. Ethel’s here! Merry Christmas! Did you bring us treats?”
Ethel planted kisses on their heads, inhaled the bouquet of their freshly washed and curled hair. Her mind tumbled back to the days when the girls’ parents had greeted her the same way, some twenty years ago. She reached into her coat pocket and retrieved two peppermint sticks wrapped in wax paper. The girls shrieked and clapped. They hugged Ethel again and ran into the other room with their candy.
“Don’t spoil your supper now,” Marjorie’s husband, Walter, shouted after them. He gave Ethel a wink. She already knew he wasn’t at all worried about his granddaughters’ appetites.
The grandsons were less interested in Ethel, though she had brought candies for them as well. They were more interested in the presents under the tree, in shaking the boxes and wagering on the contents. Ethel watched them, as she did every Christmas, taking in their youthful glee and feeling a bit younger herself as a result. Walter stood beside her.
“Been a tough year for the kids,” he said. “For us, too, but Marjorie and me just couldn’t let Christmas morning come without anything under the tree for them.”
Marjorie had been knitting like a fiend the past few months to make cozy hats for each of her six grandchildren. She’d been saving all her extra pennies for Christmas dinner, so she’d unraveled one of her Afghans for the yarn. And Walter had been carving and painting toy cars and tiny zoo animals from wood scraps that would otherwise have gone in the potbelly stove to warm their aching bones.
“They’ll be over the moon tomorrow, Walt.”
Walter picked at some invisible lint on his shirt sleeve. “Shoot. They’re good kids. I’m just glad they’ll get to open a little something.”
Ethel snapped her fingers and turned to rummage inside the deep pockets of her coat.
“I almost forgot about this,” she said and pulled out a bottle of red wine. “Who says we grown-ups can’t open up a little something of our own.”
Walt’s eyes got big. Where on God’s green earth did you swipe that, they seemed to ask.
“I had Mrs. Wallace at the Five & Dime order a bottle from those Gallo brothers in California. She insisted I only pay wholesale, too, since it’s Christmas.”
“She’s got a big heart,” Walt said, admiring the bottle.
Ethel agreed and assured him she’d made the woman an extra large dish of bread pudding as thanks. He said Ethel’s bread pudding is worth a whole case of wine. Then he extended his elbow and escorted his old friend into the kitchen to fetch a corkscrew.
RJ woke to the familiar sound of Woody’s scratching at the windows. Stormy lay on the bed beside her, curled in a tight ball, pressed into the curve at the back of RJ’s knees. As a child, RJ had begged her Uncle Lou to let their English shepherd sleep in her bedroom, and he had looked at her as though she’d sprouted a second head. Uncle Lou wouldn’t even let the animal in the house, much less on the furniture. RJ smiled and snuggled beneath her quilt, not quite ready to break the Christmas morning magic and face the morning chill.
When she heard Woody get to work on the kitchen window, RJ threw back the quilt and put her feet on the dusty floor. Stormy jumped off the bed and trotted into the other room. RJ followed behind, throwing open the curtains one by one to reveal Woody’s dust paintings.
A table bearing a holiday feast, laden with stuffing, potatoes, gravy, pies, ham and turkey. A tree decorated with candy canes and gingerbread men, surrounded by boxes with big bows. A snowy forest scene with a lone noble buck looking to the horizon.
The sun was still low on the horizon and cast an orange glow through the window paintings, reminiscent of the warm blaze of a wood fire in the hearth.
RJ slipped on her boots and coat and stepped outside. The frigid air nearly knocked her over.
“Good heavens! Woody, aren’t you freezing out here?”
“Yes,” he said. “Merry Christmas.”
RJ laughed. His straightforward responses never failed to delight her.
“Merry Christmas to you, too,” she said.
She watched him work for a moment, shifting her weight from foot to foot to get her blood moving and get some warmth to her body.
Woody finished his final painting, a baby in the manger complete with Joseph and Mary, the three wise men, a cadre of animals, and a single star shining brightly above. He took a step back. “Do you like them?”
“I love them,” RJ said. “I only wish I could figure out a way to preserve them somehow. It always makes me sad when the next wind comes and sweeps them away.”
“That’s OK,” Woody said. “Then I can just paint more.”
RJ smiled. She invited him in to warm his bones, but he said no.
“Ma’ll skin me alive if I’m late for Christmas breakfast,” he said. “She’s making pancakes with brown sugar apples!”
Woody rubbed his stomach and rolled his eyes toward heaven.
RJ laughed again.
“Sounds like you better run then,” she said. “Wish Alice and your folks a Merry Christmas for me.”
“I will,” Woody said. He patted her shoulder two times, real quick. “Merry Christmas, RJ.”
“Merry Christmas, Woody.” She smiled at him warmly, holding herself back from giving him the bear hug she knew would delight her and torture him.
Then Woody turned and bolted across the yard toward the fields for home and his ma’s Christmas pancakes.
Jessica McCann’s second historical novel, Peculiar Savage Beauty, was named 2018 Arizona Book of the Year in the Arizona Authors Association annual literary contest. The novel also placed first in the published fiction category.
Peculiar Savage Beauty is the story of a headstrong and fiercely independent young woman who charges into the heart of the wind- and drought-ravaged Great Plains in the 1930s, intent on battling the dust and healing the land. As a geologist working for the U.S. government, Rosa Jean “RJ” Evans must find her place in a small farming town that welcomes neither a woman in authority nor changes to their way of life. She befriends Woody, an autistic savant born in an era long before any medical diagnosis would explain his peculiar ways and unique talents. The locals label the young man an idiot and RJ an armchair farmer. Yet, in each other, they see so much more.
Inspired by historical events during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl environmental disaster, Peculiar Savage Beauty is a parable about man’s quest to dominate the land and nature’s refusal to be conquered, about unlikely alliances and unexpected love.
Publishers Weekly calls McCann’s novel “gripping” and “atmospheric” with a “suspenseful plot and insightfully etched characters.”
One of the first books I read this year was All That Is Solid Melts into Air by Darragh McKeon. It immediately landed on my list of all-time favorite reads. As 2017 comes to a close, I still miss the people in the book terribly. Yes, I know they are fictional characters; that is the magic that fuels this novel. McKeon has created full-bodied, living, breathing, feeling characters – mistreated, yet resilient; impassive, yet loyal; flawed, yet perfect. Add to that the author’s beautiful prose and his amazing talent for descriptive storytelling, and this is a book that will linger in my mind for years.
Here is a summary from the publisher:
All That Is Solid Melts into Air is a gripping end-of-empire novel, charting the collapse of the Soviet Union through the focalpoint of the Chernobyl disaster.
In a run-down apartment block in Moscow, a nine-year-old piano prodigy practices silently for fear of disturbing the neighbors. In a factory on the outskirts of the city, his aunt makes car parts, trying to hide her dissident past. In the hospital, a leading surgeon buries himself deep in his work to avoid facing his failed marriage. And in a rural village in the Ukraine, a teenage boy wakes up to a sky of the deepest crimson. In the fields, the ears of the cattle are dripping blood. Ten miles away, at the Chernobyl Power Plant, something unimaginable has happened.
Now their lives will change forever.
If you’re looking for a thrilling page-tuner or a happily-ever-after story, this is not the book for you. It explores the impact not only of the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in 1986, but also the horrible repercussions of an oppressive Soviet regime on its people. In the paperback edition, the author also includes a closing essay that details the continued and tragic health and quality-of-life consequences suffered by the people of the region more than 25 years later.
This is a book that will make you cringe, and weep, and think, and worry. It is sad. It is terrifying. And yet, it is exquisite in so many ways. As a reader, I was blown away by its beauty and depth. As an author, I was envious as hell. McKeon raised the bar for all my reading and writing.
* If you decide to purchase McKeon’s novel, check out Bookshop.org at the link below. A portion of sales at the site supports indie bookstores and authors, including me.
There will be give-aways for advance reader copies (ARCs) in the coming months. Click here to put it on your “want to read” list now, so you’ll be notified about the give-aways and have a chance to read it before everyone else!
What do you do with an old book that has special meaning to you but otherwise has no real purpose or value? Its paperback binding is shot. Its yellowed pages are falling out. Toss it in the recycle bin? Never. Keep it on your bookshelf gathering dust forever, knowing you’ll never read it again? Perhaps. Reincarnate the book to give it a new purpose and a new life? Yes, this.
These photos are of my latest DIY project, using two old books that hold a special place in my heart: my high school humanities text book (one of the few classes I actually loved) and The House at Pooh Corner book from my childhood that I read and read, again and again.
My bedroom was in desperate need of fresh paint and a new look. So I chose a bookish theme and wall papered part of one wall with book pages. So. Much. Fun. I also found a cute book box at Hobby Lobby and decoupaged a book cover to it. Even when I move some day, The House at Pooh Corner can still come with me.
Another perk to the new book-themed décor is that my husband and I now have the perfect place to display books that had belonged to his mom when she was a little girl. We found them on the floor in the back of her closet when helping his dad my pack up her clothes after she passed away. These books were published nearly a century ago and include dated, personal inscriptions. Special treasures, indeed.
Books on the Subway is like a library on the go. Created by self-proclaimed book lover, Rosy, it helps shatter the boredom of a long commute and introduces people to a variety of books. I’m so excited to have my novel, All Different Kinds of Free, now traveling the rails. Pick it up and read while you ride. If you love it, take it with you and finish reading it. Then bring it back to the subway for someone else to enjoy.