Month: October 2014

Spooky Stories for Halloween

Double double, toil and trouble! Today is Halloween, when the supernatural and the paranormal hover on the periphery of our world. However you celebrate, there are plenty of literary works to get you in the spooky mood.

Because it’s Halloween, and because I am being over-the-top with this post, I’m offering up an unlucky 13 recommendations for some truly haunted reading. Some are classics, some are modern. Some are truly creepy, and others are fun. Some are short stories and some span entire series. So pick one at random and see if you like it! After all, isn’t Halloween about finding out if you’ve received a treat or a trick?

  • “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe
    Poe was the master of frightening tales. This short story about a man holding a longtime grudge will leave you with the hairs on the back of your neck standing up and a shiver on your spine.
  • Goosebumps by R. L. Stein
    These thrillers-for-kids terrified me as a child, but if a good scare is what you’re after, pick any of these quick reads to be transported to a world of mummies, werewolves, ghosts, and more.
  • “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving
    In the quiet town of Sleepy Hollow (a real place! I live nearby!) there is a ghost of a headless horseman who makes a nightly ride through the town. Ichabod Crane is a mild-mannered school teacher who is in love with the mayor’s daughter. The only problem is that his rival suitor wants him dead, and Ichabod winds up in the Headless Horseman’s path.
  • And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
    What’s Halloween without a little mystery? If you haven’t read this classic, it’s time to journey to an island with ten guests who start dying, to “pay for their crimes.” Who’s killing them? Who’s next? Is anyone safe?


  • Witch Child by Celia Rees
    Mary Newbury has a secret – her grandmother was burned as a witch back in England. But here, now trying to live among Puritans in the New World, Mary isn’t sure how long she’ll be able to escape a similar fate as panic grips her town and the witch hunts start anew.
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
    This book is the epitome of the trope of a mad scientist creating a grotesque monstrosity. The creature does terrible things but struggles as well. He demands happiness as a living being. As readers we must ask who is the real monster? The creation or Dr. Frankenstein himself?
  • House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
    This has been hailed as the postmodern horror story. It’s in parts a thriller, a suspense novel, and a psychological mind-bender. From the synopsis – “a young family moves into a small home on Ash Tree Lane where they discover something is terribly wrong: their house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.” In fact, the house seems to be aware that it is a house. As the family tries to make sense of things, their own demons creep out of the woodwork and nothing is ever as it seems.
  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
    A retelling of The Jungle Book, except it takes place in a graveyard. With ghosts. And ghouls. And a vampire. This book is whimsical, quirky, and darkly humorous, in the way only Neil Gaiman can pull off.
  • The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice
    The charismatic Lestat and the lore of New Orleans as vampire stomping grounds has seeped into vampire literary culture. All of Rice’s characters are beautiful, damaged, and human in their inhumanity. Plus, after a long hiatus (of oddly enough, writing Christian fiction), there is a new novel in the series coming out, Prince Lestat.
  • The Shining by Stephen King
    Stephen King reigns as, well, king of horror. A man becomes caretaker of a hotel in the mountains. Blizzards cut him, his wife, and 5-year-old son from the surrounding world. A sinister feeling settles in over the seemingly empty hotel. But what about the masked guests in the elevator, or the random woman? In this book, it’s impossible to tell what’s real and what’s not.
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker
    Where all the vampire tropes truly began. Read the 1897 novel that would someday go on to inspire vampires that sparkled in the sun.
  • The Hollows series by Kim Harrison
    In this alternate future, where a virus has nearly wiped out the human race while supernatural beings were immune, and their existence now common knowledge. They live “separate but equal” lives to the humans. In this world, Rachel Morgan is a witch and bounty hunter who captures those magical beings who break the law. But when she breaks her contract, she ends up being the one with a hit out on her life.
  • The Little Leftover Witch by Florence Laughlin
    Felina is a young witch who breaks her broom on Halloween and ends up stuck living with a human family for an entire year until she can fly home again. Felina is delightfully grumpy and refuses to take off her black hat and stop causing mischief, and both family and witch must learn to live, somehow, with each other.  

Happy haunted reading! Let us know, do you have any books that are perfect for Halloween?

Gabriele Boland is an aspiring grown-up. She enjoys pretending she’s in a Disney movie, letting her dork flag fly, and writing stories that will never see the light of day. The other ramblings of her mind can be found at Brilliant Buckets.

Review: Fisheye

fisheyeFisheye, a memoir by Trish Thorpe, opens in the mid-1960s. Tricia, who is nicknamed “Fisheye” by her father, lives with her family in a wealthy Los Angeles neighborhood. Tricia’s older brother, Spencer, is very chatty, but lacks real social skills. Her younger sister, Grace, is petite and princess-like. Tricia is athletic and intelligent, excelling at everything she puts her mind to. The real stars of this memoir are Tricia’s mother and father. Her father is a well-off television producer prone to frightening mood swings, and her mother is a disillusioned ex-dancer who ultimately succumbs to the lure of the bottle.

The characterization of the parents really are the strength here, making “Part I: Youth” my favorite of the memoir’s four segments. The settings were vibrant (“The Del” hotel’s pool and the family’s dining room with the buzzer under the table stuck out to me most), full of description and color.

At the end of the book, when I finally realized that the chapter titles were Wizard of Oz references (oops! How could I not have pieced together “Yellow Bricks” and “Flying Monkeys” and “Kansas?”), I really thought: but, Part I is the bit in Technicolor!

Tricia’s youthful narration in Part I is refreshing and true, and as a reader I felt the same confusing feeling she felt as she struggled to keep up with her father’s changing demands and the silence that continuously plagued their dinner table. I also relished the bits of humor that were thrown in here, balancing out the serious topics at hand. My favorite segment discussed Tricia’s inability to tell her mother’s friends (and drinking buddies) apart from one another.

As the memoir progresses and Tricia matures, she grapples with a serious addiction to drugs and alcohol. She builds her life around these substances, and these pages blurred together for me in a way. I felt as if the years of my own life were rushing by in a mess of confusion, and Tricia’s high school and college years passed by quickly. While I was intrigued by Tricia’s turbulent affairs and calculated drug use, I felt the supreme absence of her family from the remaining chapters. I understood that her family faded from her life as she grew older, but I did miss the dynamic between family members.

Fisheye is an honest, unique memoir about “the California dream gone wrong,” and I’m very glad I had the opportunity to view life through this lens.

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.


Who to Trust? Great Books with Unreliable Narrators

As readers, we generally want to feel like we can trust our narrators. They are our guide to their world, after all. But what happens when we can’t trust them? What’s real, and what’s in their head? This totally changes the game of the book.

Most of us are introduced to the idea of unreliable narrators through JD Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. There are many other famous unreliable narrators – like the ones in American Psycho, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and of course, the unnamed narrator of Fight Club. 

I happen to love books where we can’t fully take the narrator at their word, for any variety of reasons. It makes everything in the book questionable – as if we’ve fallen through the rabbit hole. Is Wonderland what’s mad, or is it Alice?

liarsWe Were Liars by E. Lockhart
Every summer, it’s been Cadence, Johnny, Mirren, and Gat. Always. But Cadence can’t remember the swimming accident she had on her wealthy family’s vacation island two summers ago. Her entire WASP family tiptoes around her while she deals with pounding migraines and nausea leftover from the accident. But all Cadence wants is a normal summer with her cousins and boy-crush, dubbed the Liars, before they head off to college. But Cadence is slowly discovering that maybe normal is no longer possible.

unbecomingThe Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin
Mara’s family has relocated to Florida after Mara’s friends and boyfriend were killed by a collapsed building that all of them were inside. Mara suffers from PTSD – she hallucinates that her friends watch her in the mirror, that her classroom is melting, and has visions of people dying. Under her mother’s worried and watchful eyes, Mara has to get a grasp on reality to return to her normal teenage life – but what’s real and what’s not is anyone’s guess.

emmaMe and Emma by Elizabeth Flock
Eight-year-old Carrie is quiet and timid, but fiercely protective of her braver, outspoken baby sister, Emma. Both of them have to deal with their abusive stepfather and emotionally absent mother. Since Carrie is so young, we do have to question some of the things Carrie says. The book is both achingly sad and beautiful, as we watch Carrie give up her childhood to keep herself and her sister safe, when the world and her mother won’t.

gonegirlGone Girl by Gillian Flynn
On Nick and Amy’s fifth wedding anniversary, Amy goes missing. And all signs point to Nick as the culprit. The book flips between chapters from Nick’s point-of-view, and diary entries from a happy Amy at the beginning of their relationship. Nick is certainly not a perfect husband by any means, and as the media and police close on him, the readers are taken on a wild ride. Did he do it? Did he kill Amy? Definitely read this before seeing the star-studded movie!

perksThe Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Charlie is a pretty awkward freshman. Despite this, he’s doing his best to navigate high school, even if that means counting down the days from his first day as a freshman to his college graduation. He’s extremely sensitive and cries more than is appropriate. Despite this, Charlie is befriended by other outcasts. Still, he struggles with being trapped on the sidelines instead of actively participating in life. His insecurities and perceptions are so spot-on for any introvert who has managed to survive high school.

What are your thoughts on books with unreliable narrators? Love them or hate them? Any recommendations?

Gabriele Boland is an aspiring grown-up. She enjoys pretending she’s in a Disney movie, letting her dork flag fly, and writing stories that will never see the light of day. The other ramblings of her mind can be found at Brilliant Buckets.

Costume Ideas from Childhood Reads

Bookworms: Halloween is a week away! If you’re like some friends of mine, you’ve had your Halloween costume(s) picked out for months. You’ve slaved away on getting the accessories just right, with all those awesome little details just-so. You’ve done spooky makeup trial runs and you’ve posted the selfies on Instagram with hashtags like #sneakpeek.

You’ve got your Halloween costume down, and that’s awesome. This post is not really for you.

Maybe you’re more like me. You loved Halloween when you were younger, and you still mourn the fact that you’re too old to trick-or-treat. You will absolutely be hitting up the CVS discount bins the day after Halloween to snatch up all of the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. You’re not quite sure what your plans for the holiday will include, but there will probably be drinks and lots of ironic, last-minute costumes. Time is running out, and you don’t have a costume of your own. Don’t panic. Embrace your love of books instead!

Is there a better way to show your love for a favorite book than to pay homage to its main character through the act of playing dress-up? No, there isn’t. Today I wanted to give you some costume ideas based on beloved childhood books. You won’t find a need for professional makeup or elaborate costumes here; you may even be able to pull these looks off just by sifting through your own closet. You’ll have a costume, you’ll be promoting a favorite book, and you’ll still have money in your wallet to buy discount candy. And isn’t that what the season’s all about?

ameliasnotebookAmelia from Amelia’s Notebook by Marissa Moss

The Amelia’s Notebook series was one of my absolute favorites in elementary school. As a little girl who loved to write, I envied the polished, colorful design of Amelia’s composition books. I remember buying my own and trying to incorporate drawings into my own entries, which was sort of disastrous but also fun.

This is sort of a bare-minimum costume for the girl who wants to go to the party and not freeze in the blustery October weather: Basic, plain long-sleeve shirt, jeans, sneakers. Obviously the most important part of the costume: a composition notebook! Bonus points for scrawly a sassy phrase like “Mind Your Beeswax” on the cover.

Sporting a jelly roll nose is optional.

holesStanley Yelnats from Holes by Louis Sachar

You may think you’re cursed when it comes to thinking up Halloween costumes – but this one will work like a charm! It’ll also probably send fellow bookworms into a nostalgia-induced frenzy. Who doesn’t love the story of  Stanley who, thanks to some bad luck, gets sent to Camp Green Lake Juvenile Detention Centre?

Suit up like Stanley and his friends in tshirts, orange jumpsuits (probably not in your closet, I’ll admit…), throw on a baseball cap, and grab a shovel out of the garage. Insist that you’re drinking “Sploosh” all night.

badbeginningThe Baudelaire Orphans from A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket

Perfect for a group of friends or – even better – a couple with a young baby in tow. Pay tribute to Snicket’s exciting, spooky reads by playing the part of Violet, Klaus, or Baby Sunny.

Aspiring Violets can try on a black or purple sweater dress, dark tights, and an exaggerated hair bow.

Anyone looking to portray Klaus Baudelaire would do well wearing a button-down under a sweater and some nice khakis, or a more classic bow-tie look. Don’t forget the glasses!

Sunny Baudelaire is a baby through most of the series. A frilly white dress is great for an innocent look. Some comical plastic teeth could be a nice touch, as Sunny is known for her incredibly strong bite. (Do not stick fake teeth in an actual baby’s mouth, obviously.)

Try to look like you’re having a miserable time all night.

bunniculaBunnicula from Bunnicula by Deborah and James Howe

Beware the hare! This is the tagline I remember from Bunnicula, which my elementary school librarian read aloud to us around Halloween time. A dog and cat investigate the habits of a new family pet: a bunny that acts suspiciously like a vampire. If you find yourself in the middle of a costume store at the last minute, throw together a Bunnicula costume in no time at all:

1) Rabbit ears

2) Vampire fangs

It doesn’t get much easier than that, does it?

Do you have any ideas for literary Halloween costumes? Have you ever dressed up as a book character? Share in the comments below!

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.

Review: The Age of Miracles

ageofmiraclesI read Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles closer to its publication date in June 2012, but I’ve been thinking of it since then.  It’s the kind of book that sticks with you. I was initially hooked by the description on the inside flap of the book jacket, which I’ll share with you here:

On a seemingly ordinary Saturday in a California suburb, 11-year-old Julia and her family awake to discover, along with the rest of the world, that the rotation of the earth has suddenly begun to slow. The days and nights grow longer and longer, gravity is affected, the environment is thrown into disarray. Yet as she struggles to navigate an ever-shifting landscape, Julia is also coping with the normal disasters of everyday life–the fissures in her parents’ marriage, the loss of old friends, the hopeful anguish of first love, the bizarre behavior of her grandfather who, convinced of a government conspiracy, spends his days obsessively cataloging his possessions. As Julia adjusts to the new normal, the slowing inexorably continues.

I was so intrigued by the premise of this book, and it did not disappoint! The author gives us a very unique spin on a coming-of-age tale. The narrator is Julia, looking back on her life in the year of “The Slowing.” Even though she narrates as a young woman looking back on her life as a younger girl, there is still a child-like innocence to her recollection. Really beautiful narrative voice here.

The California suburb where Julia and her family live is peopled with interesting characters, including Sylvia, Julia’s piano teacher and a New Age enthusiast who rebels against “Clock Time” and lives as a “real-timer.” As the world begins to change, so do the people on it; however, everyone struggles to find some normalcy in their life.

Despite the drastic world circumstances, Julia still experiences the things that every young teen experiences: fights with best friends, embarrassing moments, first love. These experiences are real, but set against unsettling, awe-inspiring backdrops (beach mansions that have succumbed to the tides, populated by sea creatures, and the school yard in the midst of a total solar eclipse, were my favorites).

Karen Thompson Walker’s debut novel is a thought-provoking read with some beautiful lines and memorable characters. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for something different.

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.

Review: The Sea of Tranquility

The Sea of Tranquility

Nastya Kashikov, the protagonist of Katja Millay’s YA novel, is a seventeen-year-old dead girl. She was dead, that is, for ninety-six seconds when everything was ripped away from her – her identity and life as a piano prodigy. Now she wants to get through high school without anyone learning the truth about her, and to make the boy who killed her pay for destroying her.

She has been a self-inflicted mute for two years, and when she starts showing up at her new school looking like a hussy from Hot Topic, no one knows what to make of her. And that’s exactly how she wants it.

Except there’s Josh Bennett, who has lost every family member in his life, until now at seventeen, he’s completely alone. The stain of death follows him and allows him the peace of being left alone. He and Nastya start crossing paths, both irrevocably drawn to each other by their losses. And the closer they get to each other, the more terrified they become. Nastya doesn’t want anyone to know her secrets. Josh doesn’t want to become close enough to lose anyone again.

The Sea of Tranquility is an intense ride of emotions and breath holding for these characters, who want to find some resolution in their shattered lives. It’s filled with humorous moments brushing right up against heart-wrenching ones. This is not a typical, sentimental, mushy YA book. It doesn’t try for that saccharine darkness in a lot of YA romances. It is real, and honest, and painful at times. And delightfully funny, and even sweet, at others.

I don’t have the words to do this book justice. It is beautifully written and tremendously complex. It depicts the masks of strength we wear to hide our fragility, self-doubts, and insecurity underneath.

I really enjoy stories where the narrator doesn’t give us all the pieces of the puzzle. We don’t know really important details about Nastya or her incident until well into the story, and they are doled out to us in tiny breadcrumbs. This book is all about the character development. All first impressions end up changing, morphing, even the characters’ perceptions of themselves. It’s about the possibility of second chances, no matter if you’ve failed or been failed.

And the Sea of Traquility is full of well-written secondary characters, with their own stories running parallel. Drew, the playboy best friend to Josh who takes an instant shining to Nastya, and not for the reasons that one would think. Clay, the gay teen artist, who can capture a person’s true self in his drawings. Nastya’s protective brother, Asher, who I simultaneously wanted to smack and give a hug.

It’s also wonderfully refreshing to see stand-alone books. It feels like every YA book that comes out today is a series, but that may be my misconception. That’s also my only criticism, because I already miss these wonderful characters and I greedily wish there was more. This is easily one of my favorite reads for this year.

I recommend this book to everyone – YA readers and adult fiction readers alike. It is a lesson in emotions, in identity, and in giving yourself another chance.

Gabriele Boland is an aspiring grown-up. She enjoys pretending she’s in a Disney movie, letting her dork flag fly, and writing stories that will never see the light of day. The other ramblings of her mind can be found at Brilliant Buckets.

David Sedaris at SUNY Purchase

Last Sunday I was fortunate enough to return to Purchase College – my alma mater – to attend an afternoon reading by David Sedaris.

The Performing Arts Center is already one of my favorite buildings on campus, and I have so many memories of great performances and screenings there. Being back in this building to hear one of today’s most talented humor writers speak? It was an extra special day.

(Shout-out to my boyfriend for snagging us some prime orchestra seats! I’m glad one of us is still able to take advantage of student ticket sales.)

Day 028 - October 12, 2014With sardonic wit and incisive social critiques, David Sedaris has become one of America’s pre-eminent humor writers, the program stated. The great skill with which he slices through cultural euphemisms and political correctness proves that Sedaris is a master of satire and one of the most observant writers addressing the human condition today.

Sedaris was introduced by two fifteen-year-old girls he had met in the lobby before the show. This quick, silly introduction proved that the audience was in for something special; we were laughing before the writer had even stepped onto the stage.


David Sedaris is probably most well-known for his collections of personal essays, such as NakedMe Talk Pretty One Day, and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. I originally became familiar with his work after reading his essay, “SantaLand Diaries,” in a creative writing class. The piece, originally aired in 1992, still makes the rounds during the holiday season. You can hear a snippet and read a transcript of “SantaLand Diaries” here on the NPR website.

While Sedaris didn’t read “SantaLand Diaries,” he did mention being struck with “how bad it was” during a recent reread. This astounded me. Knowing that a piece of writing we’ve dissected in creative writing workshops – on this very campus, no less – could be deemed “bad” by its writer? Knowing that a piece of writing that made me and my fellow students howl with laughter could be seen as unpolished or unfinished? I almost couldn’t believe it.

But I suppose, we learn, writers are always growing. It’s the same for me, and for my classmates, and for David Sedaris. And being able to group myself in the same category as one of America’s pre-eminent humor writers is alright by me.

One of the highlights of the afternoon was hearing Sedaris read some excerpts from his journals. These quick anecdotes, sometimes only a few sentences long, really showcased the author’s wit and the unique workings of his brain. It was almost as if we had a glimpse into his creative process, and I found that incredibly inspiring.

There was no photography or recording permitted at the event, but I still wanted to leave you lovely readers with something to watch. So here’s a clip of David Sedaris on David Letterman, reading an essay on a new, practical accessory:

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.