Recommended Reads For Autumn
I make no bones about it. Halloween is my favorite holiday, and autumn is the most beautiful and satisfying of seasons. To celebrate the season - and my Halloween birthday -- here are a few books I'd like to recommend to anyone eager for a little scary entertainment. If you're looking for thrills, sardonic wit, and the occasional unhappy ending, settle back with one of these books and get ready to be deliciously frightened.
By Ira Levin
1967 - Signet. 320 pages
This one started it all: witches, satanism in the modern world, and a young urban couple getting swept up in a chilling tale of ambition, deception and horror. Many years ago, a family friend lent my mother a copy of this book which I fortuitously discovered on the coffee table. I was so young that I hadn't heard a thing about the bestselling novel or the upcoming Roman Polanski movie based on it. I simply thought the red paperback cover looked spooky and settled on the couch to read a few pages. Several hours later, I finished the closing paragraphs and literally gasped at the stunning conclusion. Seldom has a book so completely captured my attention. I've read it several times since and, although the ending no longer packs its initial shocking punch, I am still impressed by the book's tight pacing, sly humor, and growing sense of unease that Levin managed to pack in just a few hundred pages. A second reading also allows one to discover the many subtle clues about what is really going on that are planted throughout this dark 1960s Manhattan tale.
If you have only watched the well-done Polanski film (which everyone should see if only for the inspired casting of Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castavet), or if you read Levin's gem long ago, this autumn may be the perfect opportunity to revisit the harrowing account of Rosemary Woodhouse's pregnancy. From the moment the young Woodhouses rent a dream of an apartment in the atmospheric Bramford building (based on the Dakota in NYC) to the introduction of the Castavets as their far too friendly neighbors, get ready to be mesmerized by every plot twist and turn. I also don't know a pregnant woman anywhere who won't identify with Rosemary's feeling of being trapped both by her condition and other peoples' reactions to it. Finally, there are few novels that so expertly couple the routines of daily life with a seemingly impossible horror. And the ending will long remain a classic of the genre. Just remember to say a prayer for the beleaguered Rosemary.
(Sharon Pisacreta, Sept. 2010)
Dead Until Dark (Sookie Stackhouse/True Blood)
By Charlaine Harris
(Book I in the Southern Vampire Series)
2001 - Ace. 292 pages.
"I'd been waiting for the vampire for years when he walked into the bar. Ever since vampires came out of the coffin (as they laughingly put it) four years ago, I'd hoped one of them would come to Bon Temps. We had all the other minorities in our little town--why not the newest, the legally recognized undead?"
Thus begins the first book in Charlaine Harris' marvelously entertaining Southern Vampire series.
Anyone who watches HBO knows all about the phenomenal success of the cable channel's True Blood series which is based on the Charlaine Harris novels narrated by Sookie Stackhouse. Producer Alan Ball has managed to not only stay true to the spirit and dark fun of Harris' nine novels, but he has also put his own bloody, psychosexual stamp on Bon Temps, Louisiana. I discovered the books long before the series aired and I prefer the books to the TV show. (Having said that, I assure you that I have not missed a single episode of the three seasons of True Blood.)
Be warned that there are a few notable differences between the books and the TV series, so if you begin reading the novels and are already a fan of the show, accept the fact that you might be surprised by several characters' fates and some plot twists not dramatized in Ball's True Blood. For readers and viewers who are ready to experience the novels, start with 'Dead Until Dark', Book I in the series.
Much of the action is set in the small Louisiana town of Bon Temps, especially Merlotte's Bar. It's a contemporary setting with a twist: the Japanese have invented a substitute for human blood -- called 'True Blood' - which allows vampires to come out of the closet, or coffin as Harris describes it. With an artificial supply of blood to slake their appetites. vampires are trying to convince the human population that they no longer pose a threat, and that they have rights like everyone else. However Harris' world is also filled with an array of paranormal creatures that the clueless humans remain ignorant of. These include shapeshifters, werewolves, maenads, and fairies. In other words, the series is much like Harry Potter's world, but with a lot more sex and violence thrown in.
As the above excerpt shows, cocktail waitress Sookie Stackhouse has at last gotten her wish and met a vampire. Of course, the twenty something Sookie is also not what she seems; she has telepathic abilities which she can neither explain nor control. She finds human company an exhausting proposition since their unwelcome thoughts continually bombard her. Her first encounter with a vampire - the courtly Bill Compton, who was last human during the American Civil War - is a refreshing relief since vampire minds are (usually) resistant to her powers. This first meeting is followed by a violent confrontation that brings Sookie and Bill together, and introduces her to the magical world she is unknowingly living in.
All of the Stackhouse books are fast paced, inventive and suspenseful. Some bookstores even shelve the series in their mystery section since each installment does indeed involve the three 'M's: murder, mayhem and mystery. Harris neatly combines the genuine terror of this spooky new world with funny and engaging characters. And Sookie Stackhouse is an enormously likable heroine, sort of a Southern barmaid version of Buffy.
So grab a copy of 'Dead Until Dark' and get introduced to the outlandish world of Bon Temps, Louisiana. Btw, in typical Charlaine Harris style, after all the murderous travails she puts Sookie through in Book I, Harris will still make you smile with her last line.
(Sharon Pisacreta, Sept. 2010)
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective
by Kate Summerscale
2008 - Walker & Co. 360 pages
From the very first lines of Kate Summerscale's award winning account of the Road Hill Murder, the reader knows that a riveting journey lies ahead.
"This is the story of a murder committed in an English country house in 1860, perhaps the most disturbing murder of its time. The search for a killer threatened the career of one of the first and greatest detectives, inspired a 'detective fever' throughout England, and set the course of detective fiction. For the family of the victim, it was a murder of unusual horror, which threw suspicion on almost everyone in the house."
Indeed the story behind the murder of young Saville Kent proves that truth is often stranger than fiction. The Kent family awoke one chilly wet June morning to discover that their three year old son was missing from his bed. A frantic search uncovered the boy's body in the outside privy, his throat cut from ear to ear. The house was locked, with no signs of forced entry. And the family's black guard dog never made a sound. It seemed apparent that someone in the household was a coldblooded killer.
Local police were called in immediately, and every reader will sigh with frustration as evidence and obvious clues are mishandled or overlooked. Luckily Scotland Yard sent Jonathon Whicher, their best and most celebrated inspector-detective, to take over the case. But the astute and talented Mr. Whicher could not find the conclusive evidence he needed to prove his suspicions. The case quickly became a national obsession, and every person in the country had a different idea as to who committed the nefarious crime. Was it one of the servants, or maybe the boy's older half sister or brother. The case not only wrecked Whicher's reputation, it exposed the dark secrets behind the respectable facade of the Victorian middle class household.
The case - and Mr. Whicher's part as chief detective - became so famous that it inspired Wilkie Collins to write 'The Moonstone', England's first English detective novel. And Charles Dickens borrowed aspects of the case for his unfinished book 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood'. Like any good detective story, 'The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher' does at last explain how and why the murder was committed. And, yes, the killer is brought to justice. But getting there is a fascinating account of murder, the evolution of the detective hero, and how crime affects not only the family of the victim, but sometimes an entire nation.
(Sharon Pisacreta, Sept. 2010)
And for those who would rather not spend their whole autumn reading about witches, vampires and murderers, here are a few seasonal recommendations from Meg Mims.
Great Pumpkins: Crafty Carving for Halloween
By Peter Cole, Jessica Hurley, and Kate Kunath
80 pages. Ages 9-12.
The photos in this book are truly amazing. My family's pumpkin carving usually consisted of eyes, nose and a happy or scary mouth. These designs take the holiday to the max! Whether or not you need inspiration or a handy template for your Halloween pumpkin carving needs, I love paging through the wonderful examples. Some designs however may be more difficult to handle, with or without a template. Luckily, the authors provide simple sheets that can be copied, so you can't beat this book as a handy reference.
(Meg Mims, Sept. 2010)
A Poem by Reeve Lindbergh, Paintings by Kathy Jakobsen
1990 - Little Brown & Co. 32 pages. Ages 4-8.
Who doesn't enjoy an autumn visit to the apple orchard to indulge in cider, doughnuts and a little apple picking fun? This book delves into the life of Jon Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed. Without his efforts in the 1800s, apple trees would not have been planted far and wide across America. The poetic "story within a story" format and folksy artwork is sure to please both parents and children. There are many picture books about visiting apple orchards, some better than others. But a book like this also plants the seed of learning history and shows how the past affects the here and now.
(Meg Mims, Sept. 2010)
Turk and Runt: A Thanksgiving Comedy
By Lisa Wheeler
2005 - Atheneum. 32 pages. Ages 4-8.
This delightful picture book is hilarious, and children will giggle over the antics of a turkey family living at Wishbone Farm. Clueless Turk, strong and capable, suffers when his wiser younger brother Runt spoils his chances of being chosen by human visitors. Runt knows very well what will happen, given his sarcastic warnings, but they fall on deaf ears (assuming turkeys have ears). The story also has a warm and fuzzy sibling aspect that is evident when the "Thanksgiving Table" is turned. This humorous picture book is sure to warm your child's heart while the oven is roasting the real bird. The subtle ending is just as funny. Enjoy.
(Meg Mims, Sept. 2010)