Friday, March 26, 2010

To Be Continued: Sequels and Second Books in Series

The only thing more satisfying that finishing a good book is being able to immediately pick up its sequel. It’s often historical fiction and science fiction that come in multiple volumes; the possibilities for elaborating on the events of the past and future are, after all, endless. Whether it’s a stirring sequel or the second in a deliciously lengthy series, book two has a big responsibility—introduce new plot twists and characters while simultaneously maintaining what readers loved about the first book and building on its momentum. The books that come before these have been reviewed in other book lists so you can go back and read them before diving into their worthy second halves.

Darcy and Elizabeth: Days and Nights at Pemberley by Linda Berdoll, (sequel to Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife: Pride and Prejudice Continues), 2006, Sourcebooks (Historical Fiction/ Romance)

For Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, it’s a classic love story: first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes... well, that’s where Jane Austen leaves off in her beloved masterpiece Pride and Prejudice. But many Austen fans are not willing to let it end there, not by far. Many writers have resurrected the escapes of the Bennet sisters, but few have dared to write a 400-plus page action-packed continuation complete with steamy sex scenes—and then do it all over again. In Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife, Austen’s hero and heroine embark on their greatest adventure: marriage. In the sequel, Darcy and Elizabeth, the title couple is basking in the delight of newborn twins. Then Lady Catherine de Bourgh and wicked Wickham rear their interfering heads, the romantic trials and tribulations of sisters and sisters-in-law Lydia, Jane, and Georgiana take on new urgencies, and marital bliss is temporarily disrupted—though there’s still plenty of time for the occasion bedroom romp. Author Linda Berdoll good-naturedly infuses her Elizabeth and Darcy with so much personality that the novels stand on their own and are as enjoyable for romance and historical fiction fans as they are for Austen buffs. Bawdy, witty, epic in scope and tongue-in-cheek in tone, Berdoll’s Austen knock-offs are all in good fun. (Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife is reviewed in the July 2009 booklist “More Jane! For the Jane Austen Purist.”)

A Monstrous Regiment of Women: Novels of Suspense Featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes Mystery, Book 2 by Laurie R. King, 1995, St. Martin’s Press (Historical Fiction/ Mystery)

Author Laurie R. King’s richly detailed, character-driven, literary mysteries are based on another classic series: the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. In the first novel, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, King focuses on a new protagonist, a gawky fifteen-year-old orphan girl who literally trips over the legendary detective one day in 1915 while he’s studying bees and her nose is buried in a book. The unlikely duo forges an unbreakable bond; the bookish girl, Mary Russell, proves the ideal intellectual match for the supposedly retired Holmes and eventually becomes his partner in detection and deduction. The second book in the series, A Monstrous Regiment of Women, features an all-grown-up Russell forging an identity of her own as a theology scholar at Oxford in 1921. Russell meets a charismatic religious mystic named Margery Childe and is both attracted to Margery’s distinct brand of feminism and skeptical of her church’s true purpose—especially when the deaths of several wealthy young women are linked to Margery’s “New Temple of God.” It is Russell’s wit and intelligence that drives the story, though Holmes’ strong presence is always in the background. And the only thing more intriguing than the mystery’s solution is the evolving relationship between the great detective and his former apprentice—not to mention the vim and vigor of King’s writing. And there’s more where that came from. Holmes and Russell solve eight more mysteries together, with a new book due in April 2010. (The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is reviewed in the February 2010 booklist “The Nine Lives of Sherlock Holmes.”)

Portrait in Sepia by Isabel Allende (sequel to Daughter of Fortune), 2001, HarperCollins (Historical Fiction/ Literary Fiction)

Set in nineteenth century Chile and San Francisco, Portrait in Sepia introduces Aurora del Valle, granddaughter of Eliza Sommers, who, in author Isabel Allende’s previous novel Daughter of Fortune, ran away from her adopted family in Chile to follow her handsome young lover to the Californian Gold Rush. Eliza found happiness and independence instead with Chinese healer Tao Chi’en; now her granddaughter is looking for some of the same. Aurora unfolds the story of her life, from her birth when her beautiful mother Lynn died, to her adoption by her redoubtable paternal grandmother Paulina, to her hastily-arranged marriage to the black sheep of a wealthy South American family. There’s also the love triangle between Aurora’s mother, her opium-addict father Matias del Valle, and Matias’ passionately devoted cousin Severo. In fact, the del Valle family is filled with eccentric and charismatic members, and they all play a part in Aurora’s life. Spanning nearly fifty years of American and Chilean history between 1862 and 1910, this is epic, historical storytelling at its finest. The fact that Portrait in Sepia has deep ties to Allende’s other stories makes the novel’s intricate layers all the more compelling. (Daughter of Fortune is reviewed in the January 2010 booklist “Long Lost Literary Love.”)

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Volume II, The Kingdom on the Waves by M.T. Anderson (sequel to The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party), 2008, Candlewick Press (Historical Fiction/ Teen Fiction)

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation is a novel in two volumes that explores the American Revolution from a new point-of-view: that of an African American boy. When the founding fathers declared independence from British rule, they did so in the name of freedom from oppression. This is certainly something of a hypocrisy when you consider that the grand notion of freedom did not extend to the large population of African slaves who also called America their home. Octavian is a young boy living in Boston on the eve of the revolution. Raised in near-isolation by a strange group of philosophers and scientists, Octavian receives a classical education of the finest order—and then uncovers a devastating truth. In Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves, Octavian, his fancy schooling exposed as a cruel charade, is desperately searching for a real independence. He casts his lot with the British army, whose promise of emancipation has a vague ring of truth to it, and joins the rag-tag members of the Royal Ethiopian Regiment. There’s still an ocean of misguided loyalties, betrayals, abuse, and violence standing between Octavian and the freedom he longs for, but author M.T. Anderson presents us with a young hero whose pride and determination result in an elegantly philosophical version of a history we all think we know. (The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation is reviewed in the December 2009 booklist “Untold Histories.”)

Curse of the Pharaohs: Amelia Peabody Mysteries, Book 2 by Elizabeth Peters, 1981, Dodd and Mead (Historical Fiction/ Mystery)

Amelia Peabody is not your conventional prim and proper Victorian lady. She’s a gentlewoman, yes, and she’s quite well-mannered, but she’s also opinionated, indomitable, and when she wants something, damn near unstoppable. In her first adventure, Crocodile on the Sandbank, Amelia comes into an inheritance, travels to exotic Egypt, saves a damsel in distress, tackles a seemingly reanimated mummy, and meets her match in an irascible archeologist named Radcliffe Emerson. In Curse of the Pharaohs, which takes place a few years later, our heroine has gone from prickly spinster to devoted wife of dashing Emerson and mother of precocious son Ramses. But Amelia has lost none of her spirited independence; when life in dear old England begins to grow dull, she jumps at the chance to go back to her beloved Egypt—even if it is at the behest of stuffy Lady Baskerville. Sir Baskerville has met a mysterious death at his archeological site and his assistant has disappeared. While Emerson indulges in his passion for digging up ancient tombs, Amelia plunges into the murder investigation. It’s no easy task, given then number of suspects (who include an America millionaire, a German hieroglyphics expert, and a British photographer), but no one is up to the challenge like the unflappable Amelia Peabody Emerson. Author Elizabeth Peters’ mystery is clever and the historical details add spice, but the real charm is fabulously feisty Amelia, who will swoop off the page with her trusty umbrella and march straight into the hearts of her readers. (Crocodile on the Sandbank is reviewed in the November 2009 booklist “Adventure and Mystery in the Victorian Age.”)

Lost in a Good Book: Thursday Next Novels, Book 2 by Jasper Fforde, 2002, Viking Books (Fantasy/ Science Fiction/ Humor)

In author Jasper Fforde’s first installation in his best-selling Thursday Next Series, The Eyre Affair, no-nonsense Thursday Next lives in an alternate England where cloned dodo birds are the pet of choice, time traveler is common (though no one knows exactly how it works), and people and characters can move in and out of books. After saving Jane Eyre from a mastermind criminal in book one, Thursday—whose new husband, Landen, has been unfortunately eradicated from time by mega-conglomerate Goliath Inc.—is ready to get back to work. Leaving her position as a literary detective for Special-Ops, Thursday jumps into the world of books and joins Jurisfiction, the department that polices the fictional world. Thursday is paired with Miss Havisham (yep, that Miss Havisham, from Charles’ Dickens’ Great Expectations) and set on the case of the Goliath Corporation, who won’t restore Landen until Thursday returns company partner Jack Schitt, presently imprisoned in an Edgar Allan Poe poem (and Poe is very dangerous fictional territory). Assisted by her real-world partner Bowden Cable, her time-traveling father, her meddling mother, and the Cheshire Cat, Thursday also has to authenticate a new Shakespeare play, master the art of traveling through fiction, and save the world from a mysterious oozing pink sludge that threatens to engulf the entire planet. Literary allusions, puns, wordplay, and sheer fun abound in this bookish adventure that is also comedy, science fiction, alternative history, and hardboiled mystery. Few writers are as efficient in the art of genre-blending as Jasper Fforde, and few series are as witty, wild, or wickedly clever. (The Eyre Affair is reviewed in the July 2009 booklist “Sci Fi Meets the Classics.”)

The Ask and the Answer: Chaos Walking, Book 2 by Patrick Ness, 2009, Candlewick Press (Science Fiction/ Teen Fiction)

Book one of the author Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking Trilogy is called The Knife of Never Letting Go, and it’s a hard-hitting, gripping, whopper of a dystopian tale. Thirteen-year-old Todd Hewitt has grown up on “new earth,” in a colony that fled the turmoil of our planet for a back-to-basics, simple way of life. But life on this new planet has a strange side effect: men can hear each other’s thoughts, and the result is world of terrifying chaos and pandemonium. In Prentisstown, Todd was taught that this strange phenomenon was a virus that killed the womenfolk. But when Todd stumbles across the last thing he ever expected—a girl who can’t hear what he thinks—everything he knows is about to change. In book one, Todd and the girl, Viola, flee to a city that they believe is a safe haven. But by the time they arrive, their supposed refuge has already been taken over by the vile, sadistic mayor of Todd’s hometown. After this cliffhanger ending, things go from bad to worse in book two, The Ask and the Answer. Todd and Viola, fearing all the while for each other’s lives, are separated. Todd is forced into the “Ask,” Mayor Prentiss’ oppressive regime, and Viola winds up in the care of the “Answer,” a rebel group hell-bent on stopping Prentiss. Both sides are determined to use whatever means necessary, and the result is always violent. There are no easy answers for Todd and Viola, who grow more desperate and disillusioned with the turn of each page. Still, these are two of the most determined kids in recent science fiction literature, and the reader is just as unlikely to give up hope as Todd as Viola. Provocative and un-put-down-able, readers will want the third volume (Monsters of Men, due spring 2010) close at hand. (The Knife of Never Letting Go is reviewed in the October 2009 booklist “Welcome to Dystopia.”)

Predator’s Gold: The Hungry City Chronicles, Book 2 by Philip Reeve, 2004, Eos Books (Science Fiction/ Teen Fiction) 

The Hungry City Chronicles is a dystopian series for young adults—a popular trend these days, and as author Philip Reeve so aptly demonstrates, it’s for good reason. Book one, Mortal Engines, introduces an earth devastated by untold climate and political disasters that set the world’s cities in motion—literally. Traction-cities on wheels now roam the globe, pursuing smaller towns to devour and use for resources. Tom Natsworthy is an apprentice historian London and Hester Shaw is the brutally scarred rogue assassin who sneaks onto London to kill Tom’s idol, the adventurer Valentine. But Tom stops Hester, and both are flung out of London and forced to survive in the bleak hunting grounds of Europe. Still, the unlikely duo forges a deep connection, especially when an ancient weapon is unearthed and put to use by London’s corrupt officials. In Predator’s Gold, Tom and Hester have stopped London in its tracks and set out on a romantic life together in an airship, far away from the hungry cities far below. But an idyllic existence is not meant to be—the Green Storm, a fanatic branch of the Anti-Tractionist League that has sworn to rid the world of its hungry cities, believes Hester and Tom had something to do with the death of their beloved leader. The couple seeks refuge on the city of Anchorage, a lovely but stricken city that has lost most of residents to a strange plague and is making a desperate bid for a fresh start on the “Dead Continent” of America. When Anchorage’s young and lovely leader takes a fancy to Tom and Hester’s jealousy gets the better of her, a devastating chain of events is set off involving all manner of betrayals, thievery, torture, daring rescues, and desperate hopes. With a grand scope, fresh plot twists, and suspense galore, the second volume in author Philip Reeve’s futuristic series packs an action-packed punch that will leave readers hungry for more—like books three and four, Infernal Devices and A Darkling Plain. (Mortal Engines is reviewed in the February 2010 booklist “Booklist Additions: Welcome to Dystopia.”)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Booklist Additions: The Classics Never Die


Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls by Steve Hockensmith, 2010, Quirk Classics (Humor/ Horror/ Historical Fiction)

What’s it really mean to be a classic, anyway? Any old thing that has stood the test of time is probably the standard definition. And yet any work that is beloved enough to have inspired a plethora of prequels, sequels, spin-offs and mash-ups must hold an extra special place in our hearts. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is doubtless one such treasured work of literature, and the gentle authoress of yore is currently having a rather unusual bout of success by being joined at the hip with all manner of monsters. Last year’s bestseller Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith kicked off the trend; since then Mr. Darcy has become a vampire a couple times over ( Mr. Darcy, Vampyre and Vampire Darcy's Desire) and even Jane herself has been revealed as bloodthirsty member of the undead (Jane Bites Back). Another Austen classic, Sense and Sensibility, got the monster treatment when and Sea Monsters was added to its title, and that brings us to the newly-released Dawn of the Dreadfuls, which may very well hold the unique title of being literature’s only prequel to a monster mash-up of a classic.

In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the Bennet sisters are sword-wielding warriors who have trained with martial arts masters in the East and are renowned at home for their skill at dispatching the zombies that roam the English countryside. Other than that minor deviation, the story remains the same as Jane Austen wrote it so long ago—Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy misjudge each other until they’re head-over-heels in love. But before Elizabeth and her sisters were zombie-killing experts, they were proper young ladies who spent their time reading and sewing and dancing and trying to land husbands. And this is where Dawn of the Dreadfuls begins, with Elizabeth Bennet a mere sweet sixteen years old and peace and quiet reign over England—but not for long. As soon as the first zombie rears its decomposing head, Mrs. Bennet starts squealing, Lydia and Kitty cease giggling, and Mr. Bennet resurrects the swords that he fought with in the “The Troubles” long ago so he can turn his daughters into killers. Mr. Bennet doesn’t know why the zombie curse has returned after an absence of so many years, and frankly, he doesn’t care—and neither does the Bennet girls’ new martial arts master, Mr. Hawksworth. If the Bennet sisters want to survive, they need to learn how to kick some serious zombie ass. There is one man who does care about the why and the how of the zombie plague—but the scientific methods of the charming, bumbling Dr. Keckilpenny are as puzzling as Master Hawksworth’s occasional lapses in his otherwise strict observance of the warrior code. Both men have taken a liking to Elizabeth, who is proving to be a surprisingly skilled combatant. And Elizabeth herself doesn’t know if the passion building within her is for one of these gentlemen—or if it’s a bloodlust that can only be satisfied by complete devotion to the warrior way of life. As Lizzy chooses between the socially acceptable life as a gentlewoman and the thrill of the hunt, zombie mayhem splatters across the pages in all its gory glory.

Author Steve Hockensmith, best known for his award-winning Holmes on the Range series featuring a couple of quirky cowboys who idolize Sherlock Holmes, is in high form as he sets loose hoards of brain-thirsty zombies on beloved literary figures. Despite the plethora of monster mash-ups available on bookshelves (Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer and the up-and-coming Jane Slayre, for example), Dawn of the Dreadfuls is is exactly the sort of violently bloody comedy of manners that fans of Jane Austen zombie mash-ups love best.

Friday, March 19, 2010

How to Like Poetry


Poetry is hard. We know we’re supposed to like poetry and be moved by its verses, but it can be a lot of work to understand. Poetry starts out fun, with the nonsensical delights of Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, and Roald Dahl. But once we’ve got the basics down, things get serious pretty fast—heavies like Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, and even Shakespeare get thrown into the mix, and all those metaphors and rhyming couplets and iambic pentameters get tricky. Still, poetry is among the most creative forms of expression. Rules of rhythm and rhyme are made to be broken and—believe it or not—poetry has always had a wicked sense of humor. From revisiting classic poets to illustrated poetry editions to the newest trend of novels in verse, here are some books that just might convince you to give poetry one more try.

Love That Dog by Sharon Creech, 2001, HarperCollins (Children’s Poetry/ Children’s Fiction)


Love That Dog is a poetry book about a boy who doesn’t like poetry. But his grade school class is doing a poetry unit, so the boy—young Jack—has to play along. He’s charmingly stubborn; if he has to write poems, he’s going to write poems about not liking poetry: “September 13/ I don’t want to/ because boys/ don’t write poetry./ Girls do.” Still, Jack has a knack for this, and soon he’s filling his notebook—which doubles as our slim novel—with intimate little verses about the whys and wherefores of poetry, and, eventually, his own versions of poems by famous writers (William Carlos Williams and Walter Dean Myers especially) that his gently persuasive teacher reads to the class. As the months of the school year go by, Jack’s poems get brighter and better. Soon, Jack’s own story begins to emerge from between the lines, the story of Jack and his beloved old dog, a dog named Sky with “his tongue all limp/ and his chin/ between/ his paws.” The story of a boy and his dog is hard to resist, but it’s thanks to author Sharon Creech’s wonderfully genuine voice that it’s the poetry that makes her story truly timeless.

Good Poems edited by Garrison Keillor, 2002, Viking Press (Poetry/ Anthologies) 


Garrison Keillor, nationally loved writer, has charmed millions of listeners with his daily poetry readings on public radio’s A Writer’s Almanac. Keillor’s criterion for a good poem is deliciously simple, especially for those of us who don’t really like poetry—or who don’t think we do. A good poem, says Keillor, is one that demonstrates “stickiness, memorability… You hear it and a day later some of it is still there in the brainpan.” He likes poems that tell a story or paint a vivid picture, something simple and subtle but effective nevertheless, and he has collected those poems here in a collection titled simply Good Poems. There are poems that ode to aspects of the everyday like rock and roll (in “Ooly Pop a Cow” by David Huddle), food (in “Song to Onions’ by Roy Blount, Jr. and “This is Just to Say” by William Carlos William), even poo (in “The Excrement Poem” by Maxine Kumin. There are poems that offer insight into relationships between lovers (in “Venetian Air” by Thomas Moore), families (in “I Stop Writing the Poem” by Tess Gallagher), and animals (in “Walking the Dog” by Howard Nemerov). There are poems about snow (“Lester Tells of Wanda and the Big Snow” by Paul Zimmer), poems about the color yellow (“The Yellow Slicker” by Stuart Dischell), and poems about language (“The Possessive Case” by Lisel Mueller). And through it all, through all three hundred and fifty poems, there is the good-humored spirit of bringing the poems that people can appreciate to the people who will appreciate them. Thank you, Garrison Keillor.

The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse edited by D.B. Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee, 2003, New York Review Book Classics, originally published 1930 (Poetry Classics/ Anthologies)


It’s a comfort to know that even the best poets can sometimes go terribly, horribly, hilariously wrong. And that’s a thought that has been comforting readers for seventy years, ever since two gentlemen named D.B Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee collected a bunch of poems they deemed bad in an anthology bearing the name The Stuffed Owl. An attempt to write a poem, it seems, becomes the great equalizer. When Lord Byron mucks his way through an overly sentimental poem about the shedding of tears on graves, or when William Wordsworth tries to get away with a rhyme like “That is a work of waste and ruin:/ Consider, Charles, what you are doing,” we simply cannot help shaking our heads in disbelief, rolling our eyes in mock despair, and turning the page for more. The Stuffed Owl’s subject index another is a magnificent work of folly: The reader, merely by consulting the index and flipping back through the pages, may be exposed to topics as varied as “Bagpipes, their silence regretted” (page 5), “Hats, unfashionable in heaven” (page 216), and “Oysters, reason why they cannot be crossed in love” (page 108). The tongue-in-cheek tone, the mischievous delight in the missteps of others, and the playful spirit in which these poems are presented does indeed prove that as moving as it is when verse goes right, there is much amusement to be gained when poetry goes gleefully wrong.

Zombie Haiku: Good Poetry for Your… Brains by Ryan Mecum, 2008, How Books (Poetry/ Horror/ Humor/ Illustrated Novels)


You wouldn’t guess that poetry would be able to jump on the trendy zombie literarature bandwagon, but sure enough, you can read The Zombie Survival Guide, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Zombie Haiku too. This blood-splattered volume of verse is even more notable for adopting the highly treasured haiku structure consisting of three lines of five, seven, and five syllables. This is actually a journal of poems found during the early days of the zombie plague. Not much is known about the author, except that he once was a poet, and now he’s eating brains. Yet he managed to chronicle his change from artist to icky after being attacked by an undead mob and taking shelter in an airport restroom—until he got hungry for, well, brains. Now, as zombies roam the streets moaning and groaning, our infected poet records thoughts like “Reanimation/ Would be much more difficult/ Inside a coffin” and “My dad used to say/ ‘Always finish what you start’/ So I eat her hair.” It gets a little gory, especially when combined with realistic zombie photos taped to the torn and bloodied pages, but author Ryan Mecum always keeps his quirky premise wickedly funny and bitingly smart. Mecum’s website at goes a step further to feature zombified verses by famous poets; Shakespeare, for example, writes: “To bite through the skull/ Or bang it against the wall?/ That is the question.” Who knew the walking dead could be so poetic?

Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow, 2008, Harper Books (Poetry/ Fiction/ Fantasy) 


Novels in verse: A reader gets all the drama, suspense, mystery and humor of a prose book, but it’s told in free verse poetry. Free verse is a poetic style that avoids any strict repeating rhymes or patterns and concentrates instead on a natural rhythm. It’s still poetry—pay attention to the line breaks and flow of the words—but its fluid structure makes it ideal for telling a longer narrative story. And, in the case of Sharp Teeth, what a story it is. Anthony Silvo is a lonely, luckless dogcatcher in Los Angeles. The packs of dogs that roam the streets are actually rival gangs of werewolves. Lark, a shark-like lawyer when in human form, is a pack leader with a revenge plan against a traitor to the pack. A strange small man with a very large partner is involved in the drug trade and bridge tournaments. Detective Peabody is on the trail of a series of lycanthrope-related murders. And a beautiful, mysterious, nameless werewolf-woman is sweeping hapless Anthony the dogcatcher deeper into the whole mess. The lives of these men, women, and beasts are filled with violence, abuse, and betrayal. That means that rare moments of truth, trust, and romance are all the more heartbreaking—but make no mistake, they still have a wicked bite to them. Told in an epic poetic voice that is bloody and beautiful, author Toby Barlow’s debut novel is an intricate, intriguing look at the supernaturally seedy side of city life.

New Found Land: Lewis and Clark’s Voyage of Discovery by Allan Wolf, 2004, Candlewick Press (Teen Poetry/ Historical Fiction) 


Poetry, especially in its novel-in-verse form, is surprisingly well-suited to historical fiction. Poetry has a distinctive voice, and history is best told from the points of view of many. In New Found Land: Lewis and Clark’s Voyage of Discovery, fourteen characters tell the tale of the cross-country journey undertaken by Captains Lewis and Clark in 1804. The goal was to follow the rivers from the east to west, to find the legendary Northwest Passage that would lead from coast to coast, and to map the lands in between. The fourteen unique voices in New Found Land include the members of the Corps of Discovery—the poetic name given to the expedition team—and other historical figures: Sacajawea, the Native American guide; President Thomas Jefferson; Clark’s slave, York; sundry adventurers, alcoholics, hunters, guides, and gentlemen; and even a Newfoundland dog owned by Captain Lewis who is named Seaman but calls himself Oolum. Diverse personalities, motives, notions of freedom, goals, triumphs, and tragedies merge seamlessly with historical fact as each character narrates an episode, experience, or thought in insightful free verse entries. Chatty teenager George Shannon adds humor on one page, Sacajawea’s longing comes pouring across the next, and through it all author Allan Wolf conveys the immense scope of this mammoth undertaking and how it changed the lives of all involved. It will come close to doing the same for its readers, who are destined to be swept away by the drama, history, and yes, the poetry, of New Found Land.

Visions in Poetry series edited by Tara Walker, published by KCP Press, 2004-2008 (Poetry Classics/ Illustrated Books)

  • Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by Stèphane Jorisch, 2004
  • The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes, illustrated by Murray Kimber, 2005
  • The Lady of Shalott by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, illustrated by Geneviève Côté, 2005
  • Casey at the Bat by Ernest L. Thayer, illustrated by Joe Morse, 2006
  • The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe, illustrated by Ryan Pierce, 2006
  • The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear, illustrated by Stèphane Jorisch, 2007
  • My Letter to the World by Emily Dickinson, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault, 2008
The Visions in Poetry series is, quite simply, delightful. With seven trim little books, the team at KCP Press has created one of the loveliest collections of poetry that you’re likely to find on bookshelves anywhere. Each volume is a single poem, a famous, beloved, classic poem illustrated by a noted artist in a fresh, original style. The Highwayman, a romantic early 20th-century poem about a dashing robber and the landlord’s “black-eyed daughter,” is re-imagined as a stylized motorcycle adventure through the charcoal-black streets of New York City. The charmingly nonsensical tale about the union of The Owl and the Pussycat is given a surreal, dreamy quality by pages of delicately inked pencil and watercolor illustrations; artist Stèphane Jorisch ups the ante on the irresistibly weird “borogroves” and “mome raths” of the Jabberwocky as well. Mighty Casey is every inch the tragic hero when he takes up that baseball bat in the dusky sandlot of Ernest L. Thayer’s ode to baseball bravery Casey at the Bat. And when the likes of Emily Dickinson, Geneviève Côté, Edgar Allan Poe, and other friends join the club, it becomes almost impossible to imagine simply reading these poems as black words on a white page ever again. The matching of artist to poet is spot-on and the result is a stunning little collection of the prettiest poetry you’ve ever read.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Number the Books


Reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic. When letters and numbers combine in the form of fiction, strange and interesting things are bound to happen. A number in a book title can indicate so many things: populations of people, distance to travel, codes to break, mysteries to solve. O reading, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, 2003, Harper Books, originally published 1940 (Mystery Classics)


Ten strangers—a rich playboy, a careless doctor, an army general, an ex-police inspector, a rigidly religious old woman, a husband-and-wife servant couple, a young schoolmarm, a court judge, and a con man—are invited to an island vacation by Mr. and Mrs. U.N. Owen. But once they arrive on the island and the boat to the mainland departs, they find an empty house—no hosts to greet them and only each other (and they’re all strangers) for company. But there is an explanation waiting. A gramophone recording announces that the ten of them have been gathered together because each committed a crime and got away with it. Each guest is responsible for the death of someone else, and for whatever reason, their crimes could not be proved. Well, justice is about to be served. One by one, the guests start dying—poisoned, shot, bashed in the head, pushed off a cliff. Someone is on the island, picking off guests one by one, and all the ten guests have to guide them is a nursery rhyme hanging on the wall and ten little statues that disappear one by one as each guest is polished off. And Then There None, also published as Ten Little Indians, is renowned mystery author Agatha Christie’s best known, best loved, and most successfully plotted whodunit. Readers have been trying to puzzle this one out, and being knocked head-over-heels by the twist ending, for decades. Irresistibly baffling, this is one of the best countdowns in literary history. Christie (1890-1976), who wrote over sixty novels and over one-hundred short stories, had a thing for numbers in her titles. In addition to And Then There Were None/ Ten Little Indians, readers can count on more mystery in Towards Zero, One Two Buckle My Shoe, Murder in Three Acts, Third Girl, The Big Four, Five Little Pigs, The Seven Dials Mystery, and Thirteen Problems.

The Eight by Katherine Neville, 2006, Corgi Books, originally published in 1988 (Thriller/ Mystery/ Historical Fiction)


In 1790 in the secluded Algerian abbey of Montglane, two lively young girls, cousins Valentine and Mireille, are novices training to be nuns. But the country is in rebellion; the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror are in full swing, and the wide world is pressing in on the quiet abbey in the mountains. When their abbess reveals a dark secret connected with their order, the adventurous cousins do their part to help hide the nuns’ mystery from the prying hands of dangerous enemies. Nearly two hundred years later in 1973, computer whiz Catherine “Cat” Velis is traveling to Algiers on an assignment when she falls in with a quest to retrieve that same ages-old secret that Valentine and Mireille hid so long ago. What is this much sought after, highly treasured object that strangers are willing to kill for? It’s a chess set, an oversized, ornate, gold and silver, bejeweled set of kings and queens and knights and pawns, crafted by Moors, owned by Charlemagne, and possessed of a mystic force that few understand but that all recognize the power of. It’s known as the Montglane Service and everyone, from Russian chess grandmasters to secret society Freemasons to agents and assassins from the world’s most powerful nations, wants it. What part our heroines Valentine, Mireille, and Cat, whom we hear from in intertwining chapters that speak back and forth from across the ages, play in the Montglane Service’s influential and fascinating history is all part of the fun, mystery, and adventure. Chock-full of historical figures from the past (including Napoleon, Robespierre, and Catherine the Great) and filled with puzzles, codes, and clues à la The Da Vinci Code for characters and readers alike, The Eight is a fast-paced, globe-trotting, historical thriller

The 13 Clocks by James Thurber, illustrated by Marc Simont, 2007, New York Review Children’s Collection, originally published in 1950 (Children’s Classics/ Fantasy)

A clever, wicked duke lives a life so cold that the thirteen clocks in his castle are frozen permanently at ten minutes to five o’clock. He’s so mean and cold that he’s been known to feed people to his geese just for calling his gloves “mittens,” or for having names that begin with X. The only warmth in practically the whole kingdom radiates from the duke’s beautiful niece, the ever-so-sweet Princess Saralinda. Suitors have been coming for ages to bid for the Princess’s hand, but none can ever defeat the tasks the duke sets for them because—and this is why the duke is so wicked and clever—the tasks are impossible. You can’t slay the thorny Boar of Borythorn if there is no thorny Boar of Borythorn, after all. When a prince-in-disguise arrives in town, no one is willing to bet on his chances against the duke’s craftiness. But the prince has a surprising ally—a funny little fellow who calls himself the Golux, talks in riddles, and is never quite sure if the plans he’s made are based on are facts or on something he’s just made up himself. Still, the Golux claims he’s on the side of good, so the prince embarks on madcap adventure filled with old women who cry jewels, spies with names like Hark and Listen, and a miserable monster whose duty it is to snuff out evildoers who have done less evil than they should. It’s the stuff that all good fairy tales and fables are made up, but there’s something quite distinct about The 13 Clocks, and that’s its author, James Thurber (1894-1961), a noted humorist who had a wonderful way with words. Thurber’s witty story reels from poetry to prose and back again, with an occasional stop at joyous nonsense along the way. It’s a truly delightful romp through the wonders of the English language and the good old tradition of happily ever after.

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, 2008, Razorbill Books (Teen Fiction/ Contemporary Fiction) 


When Clay Jenson finds a package on his doorstep, he’s excited. When he opens it to find a bunch of cassette tapes, he’s curious. When he listens to them, he’s shocked—because the voice on the tapes belongs to Clay’s high school classmate Hannah Baker, and Hannah killed herself two weeks ago. As Clay listens, Hannah explains why. Clay is one of thirteen people to receive the tapes, one of thirteen people who played a part in Hannah’s decision to end her life, one of thirteen people who Hannah chose to tell about it. Clay is horrified that he is on Hannah’s list; he didn’t know her well, but he had a crush on her from afar, and he certainly never intended to do anything that might hurt her. Hannah, speaking from beyond the grave, is alternately defensive, sarcastic, desperate, and soulful as she talks about her classmates—who spread rumors about her, who believed the rumors, who acted on them, and who chose to remain silent despite the destructive chain of events that unfolds. Clay is alternately surprised, pained, and completely overwhelmed by Hannah’s haunting tale of lies and betrayals. Most of the book—author Jay Asher’s debut novel—takes places in Clay’s head as he listens to Hannah (her voice appears in italics on the page) and thinks about what she says; despite this structure, the pace is still quick and suspense-driven as Clay anxiously waits for his name to appear in Hannah’s story. The audiobook, with its dual male and female narrators, is an especially effective way to experience Thirteen Reasons Why, since the reader is listening to CDs much the same way the Clay listens to Hannah’s tapes. Theirs is an unusual dialogue, but it is one that’s highly effective and gut-wrenchingly emotional.

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan, 2009, Samuel French Books, originally published 1915 (Fiction Classics/ Adventure)


Richard Hannay is bored. He’s spent most of his life on the go in exotic South Africa, and dreary old London is damp and dull in comparison. But the world is on the brink of war—the year is 1914—and Hannay knows there’s adventure out there somewhere. He decides to give London one more day to deliver some excitement, and to his surprise, the good city lives up to its end of the bargain. Hannay comes home to find his upstairs neighbor, Franklin P. Scudder, in quite a pickle. Scudder is in possession of important information, state secrets about anarchists and assassins and political plots that hold the lives of thousands of people at risk. Hannay agrees to hide Scudder, who has faked his death to throw off his enemies, but a few days later a dangerous spy tracks Scudder down and murders him in Hannay’s apartment. Now Hannay is on the run with what he knows of the plot, hiding from both the political bullies who got Scudder and the police who want him for Scudder’s murder. There are codes to decipher, disguises to don, villains in aeroplanes to outmaneuver, aristocratic politicians to convince, and an important mystery hidden in the words “the thirty-nine steps.” Action-packed with thrills galore, spy fiction got off to a rousing start with The Thirty-Nine Steps (which was also made into a suspense film by the infamous Alfred Hitchcock). Lone men in possession of valuable information have been on the run ever since, from James Bond to Jason Bourne. The thriller genre owes quite a debt to John Buchan and his cocky, crafty hero Richard Hannay, and this original escapade is a true-blue blueprint for espionage adventure.

The 39 Clues, Book One: The Maze of Bones by Rick Riordan, 2008, Scholastic Books (Children’s Fiction/ Adventure)


The Cahills are an ancient, powerful family with branches that extend to all corners of the world and contain some—make that all—of history’s finest explorers, inventors, artists, and intellectuals. But for now, the two most important members of the Cahill family are fourteen-year-old Amy and her eleven-year-old brother Dan. They are the grandchildren of family matriarch Grace Cahill, who sets an astounding adventure in motion when, in her will, she challenges her family to follow a set of puzzling clues that lead to a powerful and influential prize. Amy and Dan, orphans with no one else to rely on, seem like the least likely relations to embark on a mysterious scavenger hunt, but they loved their grandmother and are determined to do her proud. The first clue leads the siblings on a whirlwind chase from Boston to Paris, but other Cahills are hard on their heels—ruthless brother and sister team Ian and Natalie, poisonous ex-spy Irina Spasky, sneaky alliance-making Alistair Oh, and fame-hungry Jonah Wizard. Amy and Dan have their own strengths, and they’ll more than need them as they (and the reader) decipher codes between dodging assassins and explosions—and all this in book one! The 39 Clues is a new kind of series. Readers not only read the books, they collect character cards, play at being a treasure-seeking Cahill online at, and even win prizes. Author Rick Riordan of Percy Jackson and the Olympians fame penned the first title and created the arc for the series, but a different author writes each book to keep things exciting and new. The clues continue in One False Note, The Sword Thief, Beyond the Grave, The Black Circle, In Too Deep, The Viper’s Nest, and The Emperor’s Code; two more titles are planned for a total of ten rousing, rollicking, interactive adventures.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, 2006, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, originally published 1967 (Literary Fiction/ Historical Fiction) 


Remember the name José Arcadio Buendía. It won’t be easy to forget, because Buendía founded the town of Macando and we’re about to spend one hundred glorious years following its history—and that of Buendía’s descendants, who bear portions of his name for generations and inherit in varying quantities his often-contrary personality traits of pensiveness, curiosity, impulsiveness, and rationality. There are his sons, José Arcadio and Aureliano, a playboy and a war-time general. His daughters Amaranta (biological) and Rebeca (adopted) are devoted companions until a man comes between them. There are his grandsons Arcadio, Aureliano José, and the seventeen sons (by seventeen women) of General Aureliano who are all shot between the eyes by government assassins. Great-granddaughter Remedios the Beauty is the most beautiful woman Macando has ever seen, and as such causes the deaths of several townsmen. There are members of the fourth, fifth, and even sixth generations with strange and wondrous stories of their own, but mere descriptions of the characters are not enough to convey the allure of One Hundred Years of Solitude and the spell it weaves as it explores the myriad sorrows, joys, rises, and falls of the unconquerable Buendía dynasty. Author Gabriel García Márquez won the Nobel Prize for this masterpiece and introduced the world to his brand of magical realism. He tosses tantalizing bits of fantasy and magic into his story to create a lyrical novel that has everything: tragedy, comedy, romance, war, death, and above all, the vibrancy of life.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne, 2000, HarperCollins, originally published 1870 (Fiction Classics/ Science Fiction/ Adventure)

In 1866, ships crossing the oceans began to experience strange phenomena—an enormous “thing” spraying water into the air; collisions with a fast-moving underwater object. Sailors dub it “the monster,” but no one really knows what it is. Popular opinion is that some creature from the depths has decided to break the surface on a whim, and that this monster must be destroyed to protect the world’s shipping lanes. When our narrator, professor and scientist Pierre Aronnax, is invited aboard the ship that intends to pursue the strange colossal thing, the reader is plunged into an adventure the likes of which few have experienced before. The “monster” does not take kindly to being hunted, and after an encounter with it on the high seas, Aronnax, his servant Conseil, and fellow sailor Ned Land find themselves not in the belly of a giant whale, but inside a vast high-tech submarine called the Nautilus. Its captain is Nemo, a powerful, brilliant, obsessive, and very possibly mad gentleman who has abandoned the world of men for the marvels of the sea. Now that Aronnax and company have discovered the Nautilus, they’re told by that they must remain onboard as permanent guests and journey the seas with the crew and its avenging captain. Their voyage, from an exploration of the underwater city of Atlantis to an epic battle with a ferocious monster squid, is crafted with all the wondrous technologies and fantasies that author Jules Verne (1828-1905) can imagine—and make no mistake, he could imagine quite a lot. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a tall tale of the finest order, an original science fiction fantasy that combines high adventure and plunges the depths of both the sea and of the human heart. Many editions of this classic abound; of particular interest is the 2000 HarperCollins edition illustrated by Caldecott medal winning artists Leo and Diane Dillon, who convey the power of sea, squid, and submarine in all their glory and wonder.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Good Old Fashioned Ghost Stories

Bumps in the night. Noises on the air. Shivers up and down your spine. Reading under the covers all night long, unable to shut the book—or turn the light off. Whether it’s a dark and stormy night or a bright and sunny summer day, a really good ghost story has the power to thrill and chill and remain stuck in your mind to jump up and spook you again and again. But the best ghost stories, the really scary, creepy, spine-tingling stories are the ones written dozens, even hundreds of years ago. From the monsters you know—Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman—to the monsters you don’t—the vampiress Carmilla, the vile Cthulu—these are the original good old-fashioned ghost stories.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories or, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. by Washington Irving, 2001, Modern Library Classics, originally published 1820 (Fiction Classics/ Horror) 


When smarmy schoolteacher Ichabod Crane comes to town, he immediately smirks and smiles his way into all the society that the little glen of Sleepy Hollow has to offer. Ichabod, gangly and gawky, is smitten with Katrina, the lovely only daughter of wealthy Mr. Baltus Van Tassel. His competition for the hand of the fair young lady is the hunky town jock “Brom Bones” Van Brunt. Ichabod, or so he thinks, has nothing to fear—his book smarts are more than a match for Brom’s rowdy looks. But for all his supposed confidence, Ichabod is exceptionally open to suggestion, and at a fancy party at the Van Tassel’s stately home, he hears the story of the Headless Headman. A hapless victim of “some nameless battle” of the American Revolution who got his head lobbed off by a cannonball, the Horseman spends the nights pounding up and down the roads in search of his long-lost cranium. When Ichabod leaves the party, he’s suddenly met by a ferocious fear—in the form of the good old Headless Horseman, who pursues poor Ichabod in what has become perhaps the most famous chase scene in American literary history. Originally published in 1820 as part of author Washington Irving’s (1783-1859) collection The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and its fellow tales marked the birth of the short story as a genre in the Unites States. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was, and still is, the heart of the collection. And since the tale is delightfully funny and wickedly spooky, Ichabod and his headless friend have become the stuff of American legend as well.

The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings by Edgar Allan Poe, 2003, Penguin Classics, originally published 1839 (Fiction Classics/ Short Stories/ Horror)


Roderick Usher is ill. He’s restless, uneasy, hyper-sensitive to light, sound, smells, and taste. Our unnamed narrator journeys to the House of Usher to cheer his friend Roderick, but neither narrator nor reader will find much comfort there. The manor house is bleak and gloomy beyond compare and its residents—Roderick and his twin sister Madeline—seem perpetually bathed in sorrow and despair. Roderick, in fact, believes the house, with its ancient stonework and strangely-arranged gardens, to be a sentient force unto itself. And when Madeline dies and Roderick insists on interring her body in the house’s vault before her burial, and an odd anxiety comes over Roderick and his guest in the days that follow, and Roderick’s paintings and books appear to come to life, it seems the House of Usher may indeed have something final to say before its doomed fall. Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) is one of literature’s greatest and spookiest storytellers—the enduring popularity of his narrative poem “The Raven” and his short story “The Tell-Tale Heart” certainly prove that. “The Fall of the House of Usher” is his other big hit, a classic little tale of a classic haunted house that, in Poe’s hands, becomes something much more—something innately unsettling and irresistible all at once. In fact, reading all three of Poe’s bests in row, from the mocking raven’s call to the mysterious thump-thump under the floorboards to the eerie House of Usher, is undoubtedly the best way to work yourself into a truly glorious literary scare.

Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu, 2000, Wildside Press, originally published in 1872 (Fiction Classics/ Horror) 


Forget about Bill Compton, Edward Cullen, the vampire LeStat, or Count Dracula—you haven’t really met a vampire until you’ve met Carmilla. Twenty-five years before Bram Stoker sat down and penned his tale of horror in Transylvania, fellow Irish ghost story lover Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873) crafted the tale of innocent young Laura and her strange, beautiful, deadly visitor. Pretty Laura lives in an old castle with her kind father and a couple of agreeable governesses; it’s a pleasant but sheltered existence. Laura had one terrifying incident in her infancy, when she dreamed a beautiful woman appeared in her room and laid down beside her—but then little Laura felt a sharp prick at her neck, and woke up screaming. But the years have passed and Laura is now a lovely young woman. When a dramatic carriage accident hurls an injured young lady practically onto the doorstep, Laura and her father are only too glad to extend their hospitality. Their guest is Carmilla, a sweet young thing whose face is exactly that of the woman who appeared in Laura’s dream so long ago. Carmilla sleeps late, eats little, reveals nothing of her past life, and lounges around in a most beautiful attitude. But Carmilla also adores Laura—adores her, in fact, well past the point of obsession. Laura is not very wise in the ways of the world so it takes her much longer to catch on than it does for the savvy reader, who is nonetheless quickly caught up in Le Fanu’s dreamy little tale of passion and terror combined. Carmilla was a direct influence on Dracula and on vampire mythology in general—we would have no sensual, seductive, alluring vamps if we had not had Carmilla first. That fact alone makes it an interesting read for any fan of horror or vampire fiction, but Carmilla is also a haunting ghost story that more than stands on its two feet—or fangs, for that matter. Take a bite; you won’t soon regret or forget Carmilla.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, 2001, Modern Library Classics, originally published in 1898 (Fiction Classics/ Horror)


A young gentlewoman begins her career as a governess when a singularly dashing bachelor hires her to care for his little niece and nephew. All trust and responsibility is given over to the governess and she heads off to Bly, the country manor where the children are tucked away under the protection of the housekeeper Mrs. Grose. Little Flora and her brother Miles are so adorable and angelic as to be called exquisite; the governess is instantly enamored of their childish charms. But before she can become a slave to their every delightful little whim, the governess sees—something. A pale face pressed against the window, a dark figure on the other side of the lake. When, frightened and disturbed, she describes these mysterious watchers to Mrs. Grose, they are identified as Peter Quint and Miss Jessel—and the horror immediately grows, because not only are Quint and Miss Jessel bad, immoral people, but they are dead. Convinced that the children’s young souls have been corrupted by the evil influence of the obsessive spirits, our nerve-wracked governess must fight to save some remnant of goodness in the preternaturally perfect little darlings—even while the ghostly fiends strive to posses them. Published in 1898, The Turn of the Screw practically marked the invention of the psychological thriller. Author Henry James (1843-1916) weaves a masterful web of intense and atmospheric suspense and offers no convenient solutions to the mystery at Bly. A unique structure—an unnamed narrator is listening to a manuscript read by a fellow houseguest; the manuscript is told in first-person by the hapless governess—completes the casting of the spell; wrapped in these layers of storytelling, a reader can never be sure what—if anything—is real and what—if anything—is imagined. One thing is certain, however: The Turn of the Screw will keep you biting your nails, jumping at every noise, and absolutely glued to the page.

The Best of H.P Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales Horror and the Macabre by H.P. Lovecraft, 1987, Del Ray Books, originally published between 1927 and 1937 (Fiction Classics/ Short Stories/ Horror)


H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) was a decidedly weird individual. Sickly, anxious, bookish, descended from an American founding family, Lovecraft was a mid-20th century gentleman with a really twisted imagination. And boy oh boy, do readers love him today. The sixteen tales collected here include Lovecraft’s finest: “The Call of the Cthulu,” which introduced legions of devoted fans to a giant pulpy sea monster with tentacles and scales and wings that dozes in the depths until it emerges in an apocalyptic age of horror and panic; “The Dunwhich Horror,” otherwise known as Wilbur Whately, who begins life on strange terms and ends it by horrifying, terrifying, and just plain scaring the socks off the neighboring townsfolk; “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” where dwells a sinister tribe of hybrid human-monsters who worship the demons of the deep; and “The Colour Out of Space,” which tells of a meteoric entity that brings insanity—and worse—to the residents of a small farm. Throughout his stories, Lovecraft creates a mythology all his own— the monsters Cthulu and Yog-Sothoth, the eerie towns of Arkham and Innsmouth, and demonic horrors galore that creep out of earth, space, and the very soul. Lovecraft wrote so convincingly of his fictional Necronomican, an ancient book of the occult, that publishers have printed versions of it to satisfy the reading public’s insatiable curiosity and insistence that it must be real. Modern-day fan-fiction is immensely popular (there’s even a Lovecraftian parody for children called Where the Deep Ones Are), which only proves how ahead of his time shy, nervous Lovecraft was. Almost seventy-five years after his death and almost one-hundred years since he first published, Lovecraft’s Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre are alive, well, and creeping out readers near and far.

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton by Link textEdith Wharton, 1997, Scribner Books, originally published in 1937 (Fiction Classics/ Short Stories/ Horror) 

Edith Wharton (1862-1937) is the author of The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome, The House of Mirth, and other great classics of Western literature. Edith Wharton wrote novels that are renowned for their insight into the innermost secrets of the stiff-upper-lip upper classes; her acute observations and critiques of the social classes still get her talked about in high school English classes. Edith Wharton was also scared of ghosts. She admits that “till I was twenty-seven or -eight, I could not sleep in the room with a book containing a ghost story.” What better way to get to over your fear of the unknown than by creating your very own collection of scary stories? The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton contains some of the author’s most elegant and insightful tales. “Pomegranate Seed,” for example, tells the story of Charlotte Ashby, a newlywed whose blissful marriage is disturbed by mysterious letters that arrive for her husband, Kenneth. In “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell,” a young servant is both drawn to her polite young mistress and spooked by the lady’s gloomy house, foul husband, and rumors of the lady’s previous—and now deceased—maid. “Kerfol” is the name of an ancient property that, when our intrepid narrator goes to visit, is haunted by silent ghostly dogs that belonged to the estate’s first mistress, a woman who was accused of her abusive husband’s murder years and years ago. These stories, and the others in the collection, feature crisp writing and plenty of suspense; they are, to put it simply, the sort of delightfully spooky tales that make chills run up and down your spine. To paraphrase Edith Wharton (who was paraphrasing someone else)—we may not believe in ghosts, but we’re definitely afraid of them.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, 2006, Penguin Classics, originally published in 1959 (Fiction Classics/ Horror)


Dr. Montague has been searching for a haunted house his entire life. At Hill House, in a small New England town, he finds one. Eager to explore the scientific possibilities of cohabitation with phantasmagoria, the good doctor invites three guests to share the place. Luke Sanderson is the black sheep of the family that owns Hill House. Theodora is a carefree, optimistic bright young thing. Eleanor Vance has spent her entire life caring for her ill, unhappy mother or under the thumb of her controlling sister. Accepting Dr. Montague’s invitation is Eleanor’s first act of freedom—and it might very well be her last. Because there’s no doubt that there’s something very wrong with Hill House. To call the place gloomy is a severe understatement; a history of tragedy and god-knows-what-else has made the house unlivable for years. But the new houseguests put on a brave face; they are witty and clever; they amuse each other and play nice. And still—doors refuse to stay open, chilling drafts sweep across the halls, things go bump in the night. Eleanor, always a shy loner, becomes more and more of an outsider even in the midst of the cozy little group. All too soon, it becomes almost impossible to tell where the emotional torment of poor Eleanor ends and the vengeful spirit of Hill House itself begins. But Eleanor is fragile, and Hill House has all manner of horrors at its beck and call. How—and if—the foursome will emerge from this all-too-genuine haunted house remains to be seen. In the vein of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, The Haunting of Hill House is a top-notch example of the psychological, supernatural thriller. Author Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) was a remarkably intelligent writer who knew exactly how to build layers of suspense that would captivate her readers. Working with so much more than just the bare bones of characters and plot, Jackson infuses her ghost story with a sense of foreboding that is too tempting to resist. For a true-blue ghost story, all you have to do is get good and lost in the very strange, very scary, very haunted Hill House.