For the past few years, I’ve served as a judge for the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Contest. Out of the 25 to 50 books I’m tasked to read, one or two are to be selected to progress to round-two judging. Most are average, a few have buried potential, and more than a handful are genuinely awful. Sometimes it’s the idea that falls short. Most often, it’s the execution. Common problems are stereotypical characters, inauthentic dialogue, passive language, and shoddy editing.
But in a good year, there is the one – the book that shines. This year, that book was Figurines by Jamie Boud.* I don’t know how it will fare with the next judge, but it impressed the heck out of me.
Figurines contains all the visual hallmarks of a high-quality novel, including striking artwork, professional design, and impeccable copyediting. Boud’s day job is as an artist and designer, and his talent shows.
The true measure, of course, is the writing. Boud shines there, as well. His use of sensory description evokes emotion and draws the reader deep into the complex story. Events from the past are slowly and expertly revealed to the reader, in first-person by two narrators who become more engaging, authentic, and tragic with each chapter.
From the book jacket:
In 2011 New York, Rachel is one step away from becoming invisible. Half a century earlier, confined in the clean, white walls of a mental hospital, Anna wishes she could be.
Rachel and Anna’s lives are woven together—one desperate to be seen, to find out who she is in the bright sunlight of New York and the dark shadows of her family history, and one frantically trying to sort reality from the fantasy in her head, to be known as a person before she’s lost to dull hospital labyrinths and the sharp tang of medicine on her tongue. Figurines is a deep exploration of self, of family, of mental illness, and the thin line between invisibility and nakedness. Between desperation and madness.
Posts include a series of videos in which I read #firstlines from my all-time favorite historical novels. Others include book trailers , writing tips, and other fun reading-related topics. All are only a couple minutes or less. @JMcCannWriter
Giving out books to trick-or-treaters has been a fun way to share my love of reading with children. I stumbled upon the idea years ago when Googling creative ways to donate books. California mom and author Rebecca Morgan founded “Books for Treats” in 2001 to “feeds kids’ minds, not their cavities.”
I don’t object to giving out Halloween candy. (Truth be told, it’s possible I’ve eaten as much of it as I’ve handed out over the years.) But I do champion literacy and the mental health benefits of reading books.
Only about 1 in 3 fourth-graders in the United States are proficient in reading, according to a report by Save the Children. If children can’t read at grade level by fourth grade, they’re unlikely to ever catch up. A key part of the problem is that many children don’t have access to books in their homes or family members who read to them.
To combat those facts, we give books at Halloween. My husband was skeptical at first. In his defense, I tend to go overboard when it comes to books. So, I conceded it might be possible that children would not be thrilled with getting books, and we stocked up on plenty of candy as a back-up.
As it turns out, books-for-treats was a huge success.
The kiddos love it, and they remember. Many run up the driveway saying, “This is the book house!” Often, they take their time going through the baskets to find just the right book, while parents laugh and say, “Just pick one!” Every now and then, a child simply can’t decide and will slip two books into their pumpkin bucket or pillowcase. I smile and look the other way.
Teenage trick-or-treaters are some of the biggest fans; they’re both grateful and suspicious. “I can just take this?” Every year, we buy more books than the year before. We always run out before the night ends.
Giving books for treats at Halloween is a fun way to improve child literacy. And the kiddos love it. #booksfortreats #authorsforliterarcy #readingcommunity
There are many ways to stock up on books without breaking the bank. Here are few ideas:
Thin out your own book collection of board books, early readers and young adult books that your children have outgrown and no longer want. One year, we gave out Manga graciously donated by my daughter who was moving overseas. The kids went bananas.
Used-book stores often have large selections of kids’ books in clearance for $1 each. One year, we bought comic books (50 cents apiece) at Bookmans, an indie bookstore in Arizona. When the bookseller learned we were going to give them away to trick-or-treaters, they gave us a 10 percent discount to boot. Library sales are another great source for inexpensive books.
In a related note on my obsession with books, check out this photo gallery highlighting a fun DIY project. I hate throwing away books, but sometimes they get outdated or worn out. Other times, the books are of such low quality, I am not comfortable donating them. My solution is to repurpose them in fun ways, like making books look old and spooky for Halloween décor. Scroll down for simple instructions.
Tear the covers off paperback books. Paint covers of hardbound books – I used red; when it was dry, I dabbed on burnt umber with a scrunched paper-towel to make it look aged.
Pour left-over coffee into a 9”x13” glass pan. Dip books one at time into the coffee. You can either submerge the entire book, or just the edges; it depends on how old and wrinkled you want them to become.
Fan out the pages and shape the books however you’d like.
Set them outside in the sun to dry, or arrange in front of a fan. Flip the books periodically to make sure all sides get air. It can take a few days to dry thoroughly, depending on how deeply you submerged them.
I also created fake book titles in spooky fonts, make-believe potions and creepy graphics to cut and paste into the books. I dipped the printouts into the coffee and set them on a cookie rack to dry (move quickly when dipping the paper, so it doesn’t get too soggy and fall apart).
Have fun decorating them with Halloween doodads, if you want. I used plastic spiders and ping-pong balls painted like eyeballs. Brush on Modge Podge or Elmer’s glue to help secure pages and décor.
I’ve launched an email newsletterand monthly giveawayto shine a spotlight on reading, writing and life. It will feature content that isn’t on my website (so be sure to subscribe even if you follow my blog), highlighting interesting books and articles, writing tips and inspiration, motivational quotes and ideas, and more. Plus, every month one newsletter subscriber name will be drawn to win something fun and bookish (like a bookstore gift card, signed paperback, audiobook, journal, etc.).
This crafty do-it-yourself project has been months in the making. I’d been aching to improve the dreadful view outside my home office window for a couple years. Inspiration for a garden library DIY project finally struck early in 2020.
I began stopping my car and hopping out to rescue stray bricks and busted pavers from curbs, gutters, sidewalks and embankments. These orphans would become my garden books. A busted, stained shipping-pallet and a weather-worn lattice would be reincarnated as trellis bookshelves. Splashes of old paint would be mixed from buckets left in the garage by the previous homeowner. A little money was invested in a fresh box of wood screws, a few drought-resistant plants and vines, and a couple other decorative touches.
I just had to wait out the summer heat to begin assembling the pieces. So, I waited. And I waited.
The mercury in Phoenix exceeded 100 degrees for nearly five months in 2020. Fifty-three of those days, the temperate was more than 110 (pulverizing the 33-day record set in 2011). This was just one more aberration among the many that made 2020 a painfully-weird year.
At the end of October, I stopped waiting for the crispness of fall weather. The mid-90s would have to be cool enough. I needed to get outside – hammering, sanding, drilling, painting, planting and sweating my COVID-lockdown, presidential-election stress away. It was just what I needed.
“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” – Cicero #brickbooks #DIY #booknerd #writingcommunity
I hope you enjoy the before, during and after photos. This remains a work in progress, though I already love my new view! My husband is happy I had fun with the project. My son thinks I’m weird. What do you think?
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.
No vacation is complete (for me, at least) without a visit to the local bookstore. A few weeks ago, during an escape to the cool, clear air of the Colorado mountains, I wandered past Next Page Books & Nosh on Main Street in Frisco. It was love at first sight.
Window signage beckons with “books, cards, beer, wine, tea, coffee, food, friends.” The door is propped wide open. What more invitation does a person need? How about a friendly dog to greet you at the door? Yes, a person needs that, and Next Page delivers.
The store has a wide selection of books, a bright and welcoming children’s section, a sparkling well-stocked café, merchandise from local artisans, and a friendly, helpful staff. All that is lovely. Yet, what impressed me most about Next Page is how completely it embraces its community. The establishment hosts events nearly every day in the shop’s inviting “living room,” from monthly book club get-togethers and weekly crafts/stories for the kids, to happy hours with live music and author signings with New York Times best-sellers like Eleanor Brown (who I missed meeting by one day – curses!).
Next Page has set a high bar for indie and chain bookstores alike. Since I had already purchased a (ridiculous) number of books before my vacation, I bought a Next Page t-shirt and a stack of note cards featuring gorgeous images of Frisco by local photographer Carrie Michalowski. I hope to visit Next Page again in the future. In the meantime, I will stay connected to them online and encourage all bookstore enthusiasts to do the same.
When I was in the fourth grade, a couple of the moms made several visits to our class to teach us “life skills.” They addressed topics like how to make new friends, to be kind to others and so on. During one visit they announced the final week would include a cupcake party, and we were each to place an advance order so they would know how many to bake. Most kids ordered chocolate. A handful of us ordered vanilla, and we were promptly derided. That’s boring, the chocolate-eaters said. Vanilla isn’t even a real flavor.
The next week, the moms arrived bearing their tasty treats. The vanilla cupcakes had whipped cream frosting and rainbow sprinkles. The chocolate cupcakes were plain. And the rumblings soon began. What? No fair! How come you got frosting? Trade with me.
No trades, we vanilla-eaters gloated. That’s what you get for ordering stupid-old chocolate. We have frosting, and you don’t.
The adults let us grumble and gloat for a bit, then put an end to it. Quiet down and eat your cupcakes, they said. So we did. And a funny thing happened. The chocolate-eaters soon discovered a delicious surprise. The moms had baked M&M candies into the bottoms of their cupcakes. A rich, colorful, chocolate bonus. Huzzah! Chocolate was the best choice after all, or so the complainers said.
That’s when the moms explained their little experiment to us. Explained how important it is to be grateful for what we receive, even when we might feel someone else has something better. Explained that sometimes, even when life seems most unfair, we could discover something unexpected, something wonderful, something better than what we thought we wanted.
Blah, blah, blah.
At the time, the message was lost on us kids. We mostly felt manipulated, used, a bit like lab rats. Yet, their lesson seeped into my subconscious and stayed with me. They were right, of course. It’s not always easy advice to follow, but they were 100 percent spot on.
As adults, too often, we’re not a whole lot more mature than that group of fourth graders — criticizing, teasing and judging others for their choices. I’ve most recently experienced this phenomenon during discussions about books and the differences between commercial and literary fiction. People are quick to condemn others’ reading preferences. You like literary fiction? That’s so boring. Oh, you read chick lit. Those books are trashy. Is that sci-fi? Why waste your time reading about something that could never really happen?
Why can’t we just say, Hey! You’re reading a book. Cool. How is it?
With the explosion of audiobooks, e-books, and print-on-demand publishing technology, books have become much more accessible than they once were. There are literally millions of books out there. Far too many for one person to ever read. So why not celebrate the variety? Maybe that so-called boring literary novel, if you take the time to savor it, just might have a delicious, satisfying surprise in the end. And perhaps the chick lit that seems to be all whipped cream and sprinkles just might satisfy your craving for a happy ending.
Those of us who write for a living, or aspire to, would be especially wise to heed this advice.
For one thing, reading a wide range of genres expands our minds, introduces us to new ideas and teaches us about good writing (or, sometimes, about not-so-good writing, but that’s also a beneficial thing). A voracious reading appetite just might lead us to discover something unexpected, something wonderful, something better than what we thought we wanted from a book. That makes us stronger writers.
For another thing, having respect for all kinds of readers empowers us to break barriers and attract fans to our stories that we might not have anticipated. My debut historical novel, for example, was marketed as women’s fiction. Yet, I’ve received several amazing, thoughtful reviews from male readers who were moved by the book’s multiple perspectives on slavery and freedom, and its universal themes of self-reliance, perseverance and hope.
It’s just like those bakeries that have sprung up all over the place that serve only cupcakes. You know the ones. Dozens of flavors and combinations. Red velvet, pumpkin, peanut butter chocolate, lemon-ginger, you name it. It blows my fourth-grade mind.
Eat whatever cupcake you want, and read whatever book you like. Don’t judge others for their choices. And don’t be afraid to sample something different once in a while. Have a chai latte cupcake with your historical fiction, or try a rocky road cupcake with your paranormal thriller. It’s all good.
p.s. A shout-out and long-overdue thank you to my fourth grade teacher at Madison Park Elementary School, Mrs. Kuzmanoff, and the moms, Mrs. Free and Mrs. Lawson, who took the time to share their talents and insights (and cupcakes) with us kids.