7 Authors Who Only Ever Published One (Fantastic) Novel

As book lovers, we’ve all likely experienced that excruciating moment of discovery after reading a novel you absolutely loved: The writer penned only that singular work. To be fair, it is a rare situation, but a bittersweet one nonetheless, made more so when it’s a particularly brilliant piece of fiction. Harper Lee, at one time, was perhaps the most notorious one-off author of the twentieth century with To Kill a Mockingbird (J.D. Salinger slid in at a close second, although we’ll concede that he did pepper us with a few fantastic short stories). Of course, and in spite of some controversy, Go Set a Watchman pushed Lee from this roundup. There are still several classic novels that have proved themselves beloved one-offs. Here are a few of our favorites.

The cover of the book Wuthering HeightsWuthering Heights
Emily Brontë
Emily Bronte died just a year after her first and only novel was published. The novel she left us with is an unquestionable classic — a tortured and deeply emotional tale of torment, obsession, and the dangers of unfettered passion.

 

The cover of the book The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie SocietyThe Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was published after Mary Ann Shaffer’s death in 2008. An epistolary novel set in 1946, it follows the travails of an extraordinary and eccentric cast of characters on a small British island occupied by the Germans during WWII.

 

The cover of the book Doctor ZhivagoDoctor Zhivago
Boris Pasternak
First published in 1957, Boris Pasternak’s only novel earned him an Nobel Prize in Literature. It is an extraordinary example of 20th century Russian literature and chronicles the turmoil of the Russian Revolution through the lens of a poet/physician struggling to survive against the chaotic tumult of the period.

 

The cover of the book The Catcher in the RyeThe Catcher in the Rye
J. D. Salinger
This now-classic tale, one synonymous with teenage angst and alienation, was J.D. Salinger’s only novel. The story centers on Holden Caulfield, a student at a prestigious prep school in the early 1950’s. Holden’s disdain for his peers and the apparent “phoniness” of those around him proved to be a touchstone for generations of seemingly disaffected teenagers.

 

The cover of the book Gone with the WindGone with the Wind
Margaret Mitchell
This Pulitzer Prize winner was Margaret Mitchell’s only novel. It quickly became a cultural touchstone and the basis for the revered 1939 adaptation. It’s said that Mitchell was unsettled and uncomfortable by the attention garnered by the sprawling Civil War-era epic and decided not to pen a second novel or a follow-up.

 

The cover of the book The Bell JarThe Bell Jar
Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath committed suicide less than a month after the publication of of her semi-autobiographical classic. Given Plath’s tragic end, her powerful and devastating chronicle of the mental breakdown of a brilliant young woman gained an entirely new and crushing dimension.

 

The cover of the book Remembrance RockRemembrance Rock
Carl Sandburg
While Carl Sandburg is best known for his poetry, he wrote a single novel. This massive, sprawling tale is Sandburg’s prose chronicle of the American experience. Spanning 300 years of history and myriad characters, it is the definition of epic.

 

The cover of the book HeartburnHeartburn
Nora Ephron
While best known as a screenwriter and essayist, Nora Ephron did turn her extraordinary wit and insight to the world of fiction with this semi-autobiographical novel. It is an emotional and oft-hilarious examination of a crumbling marriage – based in part on Ephron’s second marriage – as only Nora Ephron could write.

 

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10 Classic Fantasy Books You Need to Read

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

We all have a few literary blindspots, those novels we’ve heard about or that everyone tells us are classics, but for whatever reason we just haven’t gotten around to reading. When it comes to classic fantasy books, it is sort of understandable. We’re in the middle of a boom in great fantasy at the moment with authors both paying homage to fantasy has been and reimagining what it could be. But even the best of today’s fantasy stand on the shoulder of giants. There are landmarks and wellsprings that led the way for the fantasy scene we see today. These are a few our favorites – classics that have inspired countless readers and, in some cases, generations of writers.

The cover of the book The Hero and the CrownThe Hero and the Crown
ROBIN MCKINLEY
The Hero and the Crown tells the story of Aerin – born to a witchwoman who had enthralled the king. She was unwanted, her story told and her value apparently found wanting. But there was still more to Aerin’s story waiting to be told. A hero’s destiny awaited her in this beloved fantasy classic.

 

The cover of the book The Dragonbone ChairThe Dragonbone Chair
TAD WILLIAMS
The Dragonbone Chair, the first in Tad Williams’ Osten Ard cycle, is a landmark work of fantasy fiction that inspired some of today’s best fantasy writers. Set in the war-torn land of Osten Ard, Dragonbone Chair centers on a kitchen boy who may hold the key to save the realm from total destruction. It’s a masterwork that paved the way for much of what we think of as modern fantasy inspiration for stories ranging from A Song of Ice and Fire to The Kingkiller Chronicle.

 

The cover of the book Mama DayMama Day
GLORIA NAYLOR
Gloria Naylor set a particularly high bar for emotional and nuanced storytelling in fantasy fiction with Mama Day. Set on the island of Willow Spring off the coast of Georgia, the story follows Mama Day, a powerful healer who’s skill is tested when the island’s darker forces descend on her great niece Cocoa. It’s a powerful generational saga not quite like any other fantasy.

 

The cover of the book The HobbitThe Hobbit
J.R.R. TOLKIEN
While Tolkien is arguably best known for his genre defining work in The Lord of the Rings, it all began with The Hobbit. The unexpected journey of Bilbo Baggins and his dwarven companions introduced readers to the world of Middle Earth and began the work of positioning Tolkien as perhaps the most influential fantasy writer of the twentieth century.

 

The cover of the book A Wizard of EarthseaA Wizard of Earthsea
URSULA K. LE GUIN
This coming-of-age tale cemented Ursula K. Le Guin as one of the most imaginative and influential voices of fantasy fiction in the latter half of the twentieth century. Building on the structure of the traditional epic, Le Guin nonetheless challenged the basic preconceptions of what a fantasy novel could be and introduced a subversive classic that would prove to be a wellspring for modern fantasy fiction.

 

The cover of the book The Last UnicornThe Last Unicorn
PETER S. BEAGLE
Few other fantasy novels combine the seeming simplicity of the fairytale form with the darker edges of fantasy fiction. The Last Unicorn is both a classic adventure and a powerful meditation on grief and loss centering around a unicorn who discovers all the joy and sorrow the world has to offer, even as extinction looms.

 

The cover of the book Riddle-MasterRiddle-Master
PATRICIA A. MCKILLIP
Patricia A. McKillip captured the imaginations of thousands of fantasy readers with her Riddle-Master trilogy. It is the epic story of a young prince journeying through a strange land where wizards no longer exist but magic is on the verge of being reborn. The story has been engaging readers for well over twenty years, and this is the perfect time to discover what you’ve been missing.

 

The cover of the book The Princess BrideThe Princess Bride
WILLIAM GOLDMAN
If you only know The Princess Bride from the film, which is itself a classic, do yourself a favor and find a copy of the novel. While the major beats are basically the same, Goldman uses the idea that he’s abridging a longer work by the fictional S. Morgenstern to truly great effect and the novel is full of laugh-out-loud moments and brilliantly witty asides that you simply can’t get on the screen.

 

The cover of the book The Annotated Sword of ShannaraThe Annotated Sword of Shannara
TERRY BROOKS
More than 40 years after its initial release, The Sword of Shannara stands as one of the defining pillars of epic fantasy. The Sword of Shannara, the first in The Sword of Shannara Trilogy, spawned a series spanning multiple novels and beloved by readers the world over. With Sword, Terry Brooks introduced readers to Shea Ohmsford, a half-elf who may very well be the key to pushing back the forces of darkness that threaten to envelope the world. This is where it all began.

 

The cover of the book The Color of MagicThe Color of Magic
TERRY PRATCHETT
No one writes fantasy quite like Terry Pratchett and no one lovingly skewers fantasy tropes quite as well. Spanning over 40 novels, Discworld is a truly epic fantasy undertaking that is equal parts homage, satire, and innovator. With The Color of Magic, Pratchett introduced the concept of Discworld, the city of Ank-Morpork and all of its raucous denizens, as well as a host of fantasies most indelible (and delightfully absurd) characters.

13 Classics From High School English to Read or Read Again

Raise your hand if you have a few literary blind-spots – those classic books that you know you should have read, but for whatever reason have not. Maybe you’re like me and your fifteen-year-old self was an underachiever of near-epic proportions with a more than small streak of procrastination. As a result, a fair number of the classics you should have read in high school English fell by the wayside in favor of far less noble shenanigans. Fortunately, there’s no time like the present to remedy those blind-spots. In fact, having recently corrected one of my own – Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird – I can say that it’s a pretty rewarding pursuit. Here are a few of those high school classics you may have skimmed the first time around, but most definitely deserve a second look.

The cover of the book To Kill a MockingbirdTo Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee
Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning examination of racism and justice told through the prism of a young girl’s coming-of-age is truly an extraordinary read. Between Harper Lee’s storytelling brilliance and the weighty issues she eloquently examines, To Kill a Mockingbird is well worth revisiting.

 

The cover of the book Wuthering HeightsWuthering Heights
Emily Brontë
Wuthering Heights was Emily Brontë’s only novel – a real tragedy given the pathos and insight it contained. As a tale of complex relationships, lurid passions, and vengeance, this novel shocked readers upon its initial publication, but has since become an unquestioned classic. Between its well-drawn characters and vivid imaginary, it’s easy to see why.

 

The cover of the book Lord of the FliesLord of the Flies
William Golding
While it’s a necessary read for younger readers, the themes that underline Lord of the Flies only deepen when revisited with fresh eyes. While the violence can be shocking, particularly given that it takes place almost entirely between children, the themes of the corrupting influence of power and the potentially innate savagery lurking within human nature are both unsettling and profound when revisited with an adult perspective.

 

The cover of the book The Grapes of WrathThe Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck was inarguably one of the most gifted storytellers of the twentieth century and The Grapes of Wrath was his masterpiece. It can be easy for our high school selves to overlook, but this sprawling and award-winning tale of the Great Depression, poverty, and family is an extraordinary and moving read.

 

 

The cover of the book Go Tell It on the MountainGo Tell It on the Mountain
James Baldwin
James Baldwin’s 1953 semi-autobiographical novel is told through the voice of a fourteen-year-old minister’s son in 1935’s Harlem. According to Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain is “the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.” It is an essential read for its take on spirituality, sexuality, and morality.

 

 

The cover of the book The OutsidersThe Outsiders
S.E. Hinton
The Outsiders is a young adult classic. It’s a surprisingly nuanced portrayal of socioeconomic inequality told through the perspective of rival teenagers in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Given that S.E. Hinton wrote the novel when she was just sixteen, the strength and surprising depth of its narrative is all the more impressive. This one laid the groundwork for a lot of the YA fiction that followed in its considerable wake.

 

The cover of the book BelovedBeloved
Toni Morrison
More recent among the classics set, published in 1987, Toni Morrison’s Beloved immediately found its place as an essential addition to the American classic canon. This Pulitzer-winning tale, set during the 1860s, brings to life a former slave named Sethe and the ghost that haunts her.

 

 

The cover of the book The Scarlet LetterThe Scarlet Letter
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tale of sin, guilt, and vengeance is a classic of American literature. Unfortunately, a fresh read with adult eyes also shines a light on its continued relevance, particularly in the Me Too era. The realization that we aren’t far removed from the double standard at the heart of Hawthorne’s novel, now well over a century old, adds an entirely new and devastating layer to the story.

 

The cover of the book Moby-DickMoby-Dick
Herman Melville
For all of its narrative strength, there are portions of Moby-Dick that can be more than a little difficult to get through, and they’re likely the same ones you skimmed in high school. Melville spends dozens of pages digging into the minutia of whaling and whale anatomy. As unnecessary as they may initially seem, they’re nonetheless a crucial narrative device for taking readers into the purely obsessive mind of Captain Ahab.

 

The cover of the book Animal FarmAnimal Farm
George Orwell
1984 tends to get most of the attention when it comes to Orwell, and rightly so, but Animal Farm is just as fascinating and nearly as devastating. You can also read it in an afternoon. Orwell’s allegorical exploration of the corrupting influence of power and the potential dangers of populism is biting satire at its very best.

 

 

The cover of the book Great ExpectationsGreat Expectations
Charles Dickens
Great Expectations may be the most Dickensian of Dickens’s novels and as a result it can be pretty easy to get lost in the narrative weeds. Even still, this coming-of-age tale is a fascinating examination of the social landscape of nineteenth-century England, and as a coming-of-age tale is second to none. It certainly doesn’t hurt that it features some of Charles Dickens’s best characters.

 

The cover of the book The Count of Monte CristoThe Count of Monte Cristo
Alexandre Dumas
There are few tales of revenge and redemption that can match the daunting complexity of The Count of Monte Cristo. The decades-spanning story of Edmond Dantes and his quest for vengeance features a cavalcade of characters and side-plots that can be dizzying to follow. It’s also a thrilling adventure that distills everything that made Dumas such a captivating writer.

 

The cover of the book Pride and PrejudicePride and Prejudice
Jane Austen
We’ll take any excuse to re-read Jane Austen. If you’ve not yet experienced the joy that is her second work, Pride and Prejudice, take this moment to get to know Elizabeth Bennet in all her coming-of-age, lesson-learning glory.

 

10 Famous Authors With Second Novels That Are As Good As Their First

As difficult as it can be to get that first novel just right, crafting the second can be equally, if not more, daunting. It’s a particularly frustrating fact of life that success breeds pressure. Fortunately, for a number of great writers, that sophomore effort can be the place where they cement their voice and find their footing as novelists. For others it can simply be more of the same, brilliant nonetheless. Regardless, while great debuts tend to get the attention, it’s the second novel that sometimes truly defines a talented author’s style. Here are a few of our favorites.

The cover of the book Pride and PrejudicePride and Prejudice
Jane Austen
As far as second novels go, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice sets a pretty high bar. While it is almost certainly her most famous novel, it is also arguably her best. Austen’s savagely astute observations and wit are on full display with Pride and Prejudice. When you take into account the fact that Austen was twenty-one when she wrote Pride and Prejudice, it’s all the more impressive that she managed to balance one of the greatest literary love stories and the quintessential comedy of manners.

 

The cover of the book 'Salem's Lot‘Salem’s Lot
Stephen King
Stephen King may have struck mainstream horror gold with his first novel Carrie, but his second effort is where he really honed his voice and ability to bring the scares. King has described Salem’s Lot as Peyton’s Place meets Dracula – a description that really gets to the heart of the thing. King is the kind of author who spends time fleshing out his characters and settings, thriving on telling the stories of ancillary characters and reveling in small town secrets. Salem’s Lot is the point where that element of his style really took hold.

 

The cover of the book One Hundred Years of SolitudeOne Hundred Years of Solitude
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
With his second novel, Gabriel Garcia Marquez crafted not only one of the finest Spanish language novels, but one of the great novels of the twentieth century. It is an epic and sprawling multi-generational saga tinged with the magical realism style that defines much of Latin American literature. Tackling themes ranging from love and death to materialism and the fluidity of time, One Hundred Years of Solitude is a remarkable achievement and may well be Garcia Marquez’s best work, which is saying something.

 

The cover of the book Fahrenheit 451Fahrenheit 451
Ray Bradbury
Divisive, prophetic, censored – Ray Bradbury’s sophomore novel fits all those categories and is a staggering work of imagination. Fahrenheit 451 is one of the most influential science fiction works of the twentieth century. While the novel is a thought-provoking dystopia, its rumination on the power of the written word and the dangers of censorship and mass distraction is easily digestible entertainment. Bradbury’s skillful storytelling and inimitable mastery of language make it easy to forget that Farhenheit 451 was the author’s second novel.

 

The cover of the book Little Fires EverywhereLittle Fires Everywhere
Celeste Ng
Much like her acclaimed debut, Celeste Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, is a simmering tale of racial tensions, murky morality, and complex family dynamics. There are also secrets, resentment, and tragedy lurking beneath the seemingly idyllic community of small Ohio suburb. But with Little Fires, Ng takes all those combustible elements and slowly cranks up the heat as she unfolds a story that is more ambitious, and equally as engrossing, as her debut.

 

The cover of the book HangsamanHangsaman
Shirley Jackson
For her second novel, Shirley Jackson dug into her own past to craft a truly chilling tale of a mysterious disappearance and a young woman’s slowly unraveling sanity. The surety and skill that Jackson shows in her plot is extraordinary. In Hangsaman, one can see the beginnings of an unreliable narration, a piercing understanding of human nature, and gothic horror that would make The Haunting of Hill House one of the finest horror novels ever written. Hangsaman shows an author becoming fully confident in her voice.

 

The cover of the book In the Skin of a LionIn the Skin of a Lion
Michael Ondaatje
With only his second novel, Michael Ondaatje positioned himself as one of the finest writers of his generation. His lyrical prose has the ability to wring extraordinary moments out of the seemingly mundane and in writing In the Skin of a Lion, he found a footing that continues to hold firm. The novel tells the story of a man in 1920s Toronto searching for a vanished millionaire – from that simple premise, Ondaatje blurs the line between history and myth as only he can.

 

The cover of the book An Abundance of KatherinesAn Abundance of Katherines
John Green
No one does YA literature quite like John Green. Coming off the award-winning success of Looking for Alaska, a sophomore slump would have been understandable. Green, however, gave readers An Abundance of Katherines with all of its coming-of-age, emotionally resonant, hilariously quirky charm and thankfully hasn’t looked back since.

 

The cover of the book Oliver TwistOliver Twist
Charles Dickens
Oliver Twist was Charles Dickens’s second novel, although like nearly all of his major works, it was originally serialized. It is an iconic novel by an author who seemed to write nothing but iconic works. Oliver Twist, however, was the first Dickens novel to feel Dickensian. The biting social commentary, the unexpected humor, labyrinthine plotting, and delightfully eccentric characters would define the author’s body of work going forward.

 

The cover of the book The FirmThe Firm
John Grisham
A Time to Kill showed that John Grisham knew how to craft an edge-of-your-seat legal thriller. The Firm showed that he could write a bestseller. The Firm made Grisham a household name and it’s easy to see why. It takes a particular kind of talent to turn a story about a firm specializing in tax law into not only a plausible thriller, but a pure page-turner from start to finish. It both announced and cemented John Grisham as a leading voice in the legal thriller genre.

Genre Friday – Urban Fantasy

YOUR URBAN FANTASY PRIMER: THE CLASSICS OF THE GENRE AND NEW RELEASES

Welcome to Urban Fantasy 101. Here’s some of the best urban fantasy books to read, both classics and new releases.

WHAT IS URBAN FANTASY?

Urban fantasy, as defined, is a sub-genre of fantasy where the story takes place in an urban setting. Ok. Let’s break that down. Essentially, urban fantasy takes place in Our World (either in present day or in the past) but contains fantastical aspects, such as supernatural beings or creatures and the existence of magic/powers. Urban fantasy veers from magical realism in the sense that it is still completely outside the realm of physical possibility, but still exists in the “real world.”

Common themes within urban fantasy, include a first person narrative, an overarching mystery as the main plot, romance as a subplot, and extensive world-building. When the romance takes the wheel and becomes the main plot is when we enter paranormal romance territory.

Discover the urban fantasy genre with this primer, including classics and new releases. urban fantasy | guide to urban fantasy | urban fantasy books | urban fantasy book lists

So, let’s get to the good stuff: your urban fantasy reading list.

CLASSIC URBAN FANTASY BOOKS

NEVERWHERE BY NEIL GAIMAN

When Richard Mayhew comes to the aid of a young woman named Door, his world starts to change. Richard’s life becomes entangled with London Below, an alternate London, and all of the misfits who call it home

Other books by Gaiman to check out: American GodsAnansi Boys

 

WATERSHIP DOWN BY RICHARD ADAMS

After one of their fellows receives a premonition of great destruction, a group of rabbits leaves the protection of their home for somewhere new. Watership Down may be a children’s novel, but also depicts a powerful allegory of human society, group mentality, and humanity as a whole.

 

MARY POPPINS BY P.L. TRAVERS

We all know this story, right? On a normal day in London, a brisk wind from the East blows in and down comes, Mary Poppins. From the moment that Mary shows up at No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane, she changes the lives of them all, whether it’s her magical cleaning powers, her bottom carpet bag, or her ability to make medicine taste good.

 

FLEDGLING BY OCTAVIA E. BUTLER

Butler is a pioneer of the sci-fi/urban fantasy genre for African American authors. Ina is a young girl seemingly with amnesia, who possess some odd abilities. Did I say “young girl”? I actually meant vampire trapped in a girl’s body.

Other books by Butler to check out: KindredParable of the Sower


CONTEMPORARY URBAN FANTASY BOOKS

STORM FRONT BY JIM BUTCHER

When the Chicago P.D. seek the help of Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, it’s soon clear that Harry is the only person cut out for this case. He’s a Wizard-for-hire who specializes in detective work and assisting the police.

(see also the entire Dresden Files series)

 

SERVANT OF THE UNDERWORLD BY ALIETTE DE BODARD

Set in the capital of the Aztecs, Tenochtitlan, the end of the world is evaded only by human sacrifice. Alcatel, high priest of the dead, is forced to investigate the apparent death of a priestess and potentially betray his family.

 

Akata Witch by Nnedi OkoraforAKATA WITCH BY NNEDI OKORAFOR

Set in Nigeria, our protagonist, Sunny, is albino and thus, incredibly sensitive to the sun. But when she makes friends with Chichi and Orlu, she discovers the history of the Leopard People, as well as her own magic powers. Now Sunny realizes that the prejudices others used to hold against her are actually her strengths.

 

LABYRINTH LOST BY ZORAIDA CORDOVA

When Alex tries to rid herself of her magic on her Deathday Celebration, the spell backfires—changing her world forever. She accidentally banishes her family to a separate realm and Alex must use her magic (which she hates) in order to get them back.

 

SHADOWSHAPER BY DANIEL JOSÉ OLDER

Sierra Santiago is looking forward to a normal summer, but as always, her plans go awry. A zombie-like man crashes a party, strange things immediately begin to happen, such as her nearly-comatose grandfather beginning to speak again. Sierra discovers the Shadowshapers, a group of supernatural people who connect with spirits.

 

THE LIGHTNING THIEF BY RICK RIORDAN

Percy Jackson always knew he was a little different, but after an encounter with who he assumed was his math teacher, his mother sends him off to Camp Half-Blood on Long Island. Percy soon discovers his father is Poseidon, the god of the sea, and Camp Half-Blood is a place where other demigods can live together in peace.

 

CITY OF BONES BY CASSANDRA CLARE

Clary Fray has always considered herself a normal human being, but when she witnesses a murder by three teens and then the body and the teens disappear, she thinks she’s losing her mind. Clary soon learns this is the world of the Shadowhunters, or demon hunters, and even more shocking—she might just be one of the

(see also, the entire Mortal Instruments series, the Infernal Devices series, and the Dark Artifices series)

 

THE DIVINERS BY LIBBA BRAY

It’s the 1920s in New York and Evie wants to be a part of everything. Evie is hiding a psychic ability that has gotten her into trouble in the past, but is hoping to start afresh in NYC. The city has other plans for her, however, as she becomes entwined with a serial killer who may or not have supernatural powers.

(see also, the entire Diviners series)

 

trail of lightning coverTRAIL OF LIGHTNING BY REBECCA ROANHORSE

While most of the world has succumbed during an unexpected climate apocalypse, Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation) only gains power. Maggie is a Dinétah monster hunter who is called to a small town to help find a missing girl. Through a reluctant alliance, Maggie begins to dive into ancient legends to defeat the monster.

 

CERTAIN DARK THINGS BY SILVIA MORENO-GARCIA

Set in Mexico City, we meet Domingo, a normal street kid who runs into Atl, a vampire. Atl is currently being pursued by a rival vampire clan and needs to escape to South America. Domingo, immediately smitten with Atl, begins to travel with her, evading local crime syndicates and detectives on their trail.

By , December 

Your Favorite Classic Myths Reimagined in 10 Books

The only legend I have ever loved is

the story of a daughter lost in hell.

And found and rescued there.

Love and blackmail are the gist of it.

Ceres and Persephone the names.  

from “Persephone” by Eavan Boland

The first time I had a formal introduction to Greek, and to a lesser extent, Roman and Norse mythology, was as a sophomore in high school. Using Edith Hamilton’s Mythology as an introduction, my classmates and I explored the stories told about the denizens of Mount Olympus and the plethora of immortals whose interactions made for great stories. Learning this mythology became the foundation for a year’s worth of reading The Iliad, The Odyssey, Sophocles’ Oedipus Trilogy, Euripides’ Medea,  Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and to finish the year, Beowulf.

I wanted to love mythology, but as a young woman, I found only a few stories that made sense to me. Demeter raging over the loss of her daughter, Persephone, and wreaking havoc against those who had allowed Hades to kidnap her was the first story where the actions of a female goddess made sense to me. And Antigone, whose story was told by Sophocles, was willing to die in order to defy an unjust civil law. She died a heroic death rather than allow her brother’s body to be defiled. Later in the year, the rage of Grendel’s mother against Beowulf was another example of a woman whose righteous rage matched my own sense of how women needed to act in a world that didn’t like them very much. But these were the few examples among the dozens of stories we read that year.

Thus, even in a pantheistic system full of male and female gods, it didn’t take long to figure out that goddesses took the hit for causing much of the sorrow in the world. While male gods, especially Zeus, caused harm to individuals, provoking a goddess or tempting a woman led to destruction on a massive scale.

Zeus was the Harvey Weinstein of the Greek pantheon. In countless stories, his persistence in wanting to have sex led him to dress himself up as a shower of gold, a swan, a bull, or whatever the situation might call for. Women who he desired might find themselves transfigured into cows or other creatures, so that Zeus might hide his infidelities from his wife, Hera.

Zeus never turns up in a white bathrobe, but he might as well. As an adult, reading Zeus reminds me of entitled men who are convinced that there is no greater thrill for a mortal woman than the opportunity to sleep with him. His wife, Hera, is portrayed as the jealous shrew who wants to spoil Zeus’s good time, often by punishing her husband’s lovers, many of whom had been given little choice about becoming mothers to Zeus’s children.

Perhaps it is not surprising then that I love reading new interpretations of these ancient stories. The release of Madeline Miller’s stellar Circe seemed like a good time to put together a list of some of the best of these re-tellings, which take place in a variety of settings.

The cover of the book Cassandra

Cassandra

Christa Wolf

This book, which appeared in 1984, was the first of these new interpretations that I experienced. Wolf gives a voice to Cassandra, the daughter of the King of Troy, who was claimed as the spoils of war by Agamemnon. Cassandra had the gift of prophecy, but she had also been cursed so that no one would believe her warnings. When readers first meet Cassandra, she is sitting outside Agamemnon’s castle, knowing that once she enters, her fate is to be killed by Clytemnestra for a crime Cassandra did not commit.

As an intellectual living in repressive East Germany, Wolf was all too familiar with silencing. In Cassandra, Wolf weights a vivid re-telling of the seer’s story with the burden of living in a land that forbids one to speak the truth.

The cover of the book The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus

Margaret Atwood

At the end of The Odyssey, when Odysseus has made it home to Ithaca, he and his son, Telemachus kill all of the suitors who had besieged Penelope while her husband was gone. But, for reasons that are never made clear by Homer, they hang a number of Penelope’s servants and handmaids, ostensibly for the sin of having slept with the suitors.

Atwood gives a voice to Penelope, and then contrasts her voice with the collective voices of the dead maids, who plead their case and ask for explanations. Were they killed because they worked against Penelope while she waited for Odysseus? Did they sleep with the suitors in order to spy on them, thus strengthening Penelope in her resistance? Or were they treated by Penelope as some sort of scapegoat to absorb any suspicion that Penelope might have been entertaining suitors instead of remaining chaste? The songs of the doomed chorus haunt the reader long after the tale has been told.

The cover of the book Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles

Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles

Jeanette Winterson

This re-telling centers on the lonely task of Atlas, who bears the weight of the world. How burdens re-make us is part of the story, but that’s only a part of it. Half-Titan, half-man, Atlas occupies a troubling space that literally weighs on him. Being forced to hold up the world is punishment, but Atlas also bears it as a commitment to duty. Winterson imagines both the terrible loneliness and the thwarted desire at the heart of the tale. Don’t be surprised if you can’t put it down.

The cover of the book The Watch

The Watch

Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya

In the story originally told by Sophocles, Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus, the king who, without knowledge of his deed, had killed his father and married his mother. Years later, Antigone’s two brothers have gone to war against one another. Creon is about to welcome Antigone into his family as his daughter-in-law, but when Creon decrees that the punishment for her brother’s rebellion will be to leave his corpse to rot in the sun, Antigone defies Creon in order to give her brother proper burial rites.

In Bhattacharya’s re-telling, besieged soldiers in Afghanistan are confronted by the sister of a young man who has been killed in the fighting. She wants to be given her brother’s body so she may bury it according to custom, but the soldiers suspect that she could be a terrorist who wants to kill them. During the standoff, the soldiers will struggle to commit ethical actions in the midst of a war without rules.

The cover of the book Home Fire

Home Fire

Kamila Shamsie

In another re-telling of Antigone, Shamsie imagines the story against the backdrop of modern Great Britain and the United States. Isma and Aneeka are sisters who are pursuing their university educations when they meet Eamonn, the son of a politician who has made his reputation on being ruthless toward certain populations in Britain. Eamonn is ashamed of his father and hides his identity from the two women. But when circumstances lead to Eamon’s revelation, the political consequences will lead to a showdown with fatal results.

The cover of the book House of Names

House of Names

Colm Toibin

Toibin focuses his attention on the women left behind when the men went off to fight the Trojan War. Specifically, he recounts the ten years that Clytemnestra spends plotting to kill Agamemnon upon his return. Clytemnestra feels justified in her fury because of Agamemnon’s actions prior to setting sail for Troy. In an effort to appease an offended god, Agamemnon had sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia. He had lured his wife and daughter to the military camp by promising Iphigenia a wedding to the great hero, Achilles. Then, while her horrified mother had watched, Iphigenia had been killed in an effort to get favorable winds for his journey.

Toibin gives voice to Clytemnestra’s rage, through which a sequence of vengeance and revenge will be enacted that will leave virtually no one standing. Toibin’s retelling of Aeschylus’s Oresteia is a brilliant examination of the costs of anger.

The cover of the book The Silence of the Girls

The Silence of the Girls

Pat Barker

The opening line of the Iliad is: “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus and its devastation …” In Barker’s story, readers meet the woman, Briseis, who was a huge part of the events that inspired Achilles’ fury. In The Iliad, Briseis is a virtual trinket that inspires a conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles. But Barker gives Briseis her own story, and she also gives voices to the other Trojan women who were captured by the Greeks and held as sex slaves and hostages.

The idea that Achilles would sulk in his tent because of a woman is treated by Homer as evidence of a great fault within the Greek warrior. Barker’s brilliant imagining of the years of siege outside Troy’s walls restores humanity to women who were treated like throw-away dolls. By presenting the Trojan War through the eyes of captives, Barker complicates notions of what defines heroism.

The cover of the book Circe

Circe

Madeline Miller

Circe was another demi-goddess who was minimized in Homer’s stories. In The Odyssey, Homer presents Circe as yet another lonely goddess who attempts to keep Odysseus from getting home to Ithaca. Miller gives to readers a complex Circe, the neglected daughter of the Sun. Circe learns skills of magic and healing and becomes a powerful force in her father’s court. It’s why he exiles her, afraid that his daughter will upset the balance of power.

When Odysseus washes up on her shore, Circe interacts with him on her own terms. Miller tells a story that re-empowers a character who was humiliated by her representation at Homer’s hands. Circe is destined to be a new classic.

The cover of the book The Bloody Chamber, Wise Children, Fireworks

The Bloody Chamber, Wise Children, Fireworks

Angela Carter

Angela Carter took on a lot of bad tellings of women’s stories. In the stories that comprise The Bloody Chamber, fairy queens and sleeping princesses—among others— no longer serve at the pleasure of men. They inhabit much larger worlds and wield more power. Carter’s women are not pushovers, and the sweetness and light of your average Disney princess is nowhere to be found. Anyone searching for a grownup re-telling of familiar fairy myths and folklore will find a treasure trove here.

The cover of the book The Mere Wife

The Mere Wife

Maria Dahvana Headley

Beowulf’s origins are unclear. It was composed sometime between the end of the 6th-century C.E. and the year 1000, and its setting is 6th century Denmark and Sweden. In the story, Beowulf hunts and kills Grendel, the monster, that lives in the lake. Grendel’s mother is never given a name, but it is she that seeks revenge against Beowulf.

Headley moves the story to present-day America. Dana Mills served her country in its war in the deserts of the Middle East. She is captured and her mock execution by her captors is watched by millions on YouTube. Years later, Herot Hall, a gated community situated at the base of a mountain, is home to people who fear living in the City, amidst its urban “chaos.” They have chosen the artificiality of a quiet life. Everything is serene until the day that Willa’s son, Dylan, makes friends with a “strange” little boy, Gren, who lives with his mother, the returned Dana, up in the woods behind the walls of the community.

Gren and Dylan’s friendship will disrupt everything around them, and it exposes how sterile and bleak the life that Herot Hall’s residents have deliberately chosen for themselves. Headley has crafted a story that operates on multiple levels. It is a feminist re-telling of Beowulf and a critique of late-stage capitalism. I found it one of the most provocative books I have read in a long time.

Unexpected Classics: 10 Overlooked Novels Finding Life in New Editions

Photo by Becca Tapert on Unsplash

Not every novel finds its audience right away; in some cases, the ideal reader for a book may not have been born at the time that said book was first published. And while keeping up-to-date on new books is a good thing, it can also be deeply rewarding to delve into a book published several years – or several decades – ago. Sometimes an author’s style or approach will be ahead of their time; sometimes there may be unexpected resonances with events that have occurred since the book was first published.

What follows is a list of ten novels, released in new editions (or, in some cases, new translations) over the last few years. They range in style from comic to tragic, from realistic to uncanny, and their settings cover everything from the familiar confines of suburbia to a surreal Arctic landscape. Perhaps one of these books will be exactly what you were looking to read at this very moment.

The cover of the book IceIce
Anna Kavan
Classifying Anna Kavan’s Ice isn’t easy. It’s set in a near future where society has taken a turn for the violent and the climate has dropped precipitously; the novel’s narrator is searching for a woman, but his perceptions of the world are not exactly reliable. The result makes for a haunting and unpredictable read. Among the admirers of this novel are Jonathan Lethem and Kate Zambreno, both of whom contribute writings to this new edition.

 

The cover of the book Mrs. CalibanMrs. Caliban
Rachel Ingalls
Rachel Ingalls’s short novel details the unfulfilled life of a suburban woman: her husband is enmeshed in an affair, her ambitions are frustrated, and her friendships are flawed. Then a giant frog-man escapes from a local science facility, takes refuge in her home, and changes the course of her life. The novel shifts from philosophical to tragic to drolly funny at a moment’s notice; between this and the novella collection Three Masquerades, Ingalls’s fiction is getting a newfound appreciation as of late.

 

The cover of the book The GraveyardThe Graveyard
Marek Hlasko
The protagonist of Marek Hłasko’s novel, set in Cold War-era Poland, lives a normal life: a solid job, a family, and memories of his time fighting the Nazis during World War II. A chance encounter causes him to fall out with the Communist Party, which sets his life on a sudden downward trajectory, with horrifying results. The novel is meticulously structured, with a mounting sense of dread that gradually suffuses the entirety of the page.

 

The cover of the book Dark ReflectionsDark Reflections
Samuel R. Delany
Samuel R. Delany is best-known for his visionary, surreal visions of strange landscapes and potential futures. He’s just as talented when it comes to charting the course of the frustrations and compromises of more quotidian existence: Dark Reflections chronicles several decades in the life of a talented but largely obscure poet, a singular voice who never entirely connects with an audience.

 

The cover of the book Appointment in SamarraAppointment in Samarra
John O’Hara
John O’Hara’s first novel is a searing portrait of marital, financial, and spiritual discontent. It begins innocuously enough, with the novel’s protagonist Julian English throwing a drink in the face of another man. The events that arise from that reveal the tensions and anguish found just below the surface in his community, along with the prejudices and isolation of the people around him.

 

The cover of the book After ClaudeAfter Claude
Iris Owens
The narrator of this novel by Iris Owens is acerbic, caustic, and – potentially – not entirely reliable in all matters. Set in early-1970s New York City, After Claude chronicles the end of the narrator’s relationship, and how this causes her to reimagine her life. It’s a bleakly funny look at city life, told through a memorable voice.

 

The cover of the book VolcanoVolcano
Shusaku Endo
Shusaku Endo’s novel Volcano tells two stories that parallel one another: one about a newly-retired man settling into a new phase of life and grappling with health issues, and the other about a defrocked priest pondering his own isolation and questions of corruption. Above the city where they live can be found a seemingly dormant volcano, a potent metaphor for the dangers of the unspoken.

 

The cover of the book The First WifeThe First Wife
Paulina Chiziane
The protagonist of Paulina Chiziane’s novel The First Wifediscovers an unsettling fact about her husband: namely, that he’s married to several women located around the city of Maputo in Mozambique. Her discovery of this, and her subsequent actions, creates a powerful portrait of a nation in the midst of change, and the harrowing legacy of a long civil war.

 

The cover of the book Reasons of StateReasons of State
Alejo Carpentier
At the center of Alejo Carpentier’s Reasons of State is the dictator of a nation in Latin America – an aging man still convinced of the rightness of his cause, and willing to endorse horrible things in order to maintain his power. The gulf between his belief in his own righteousness and how the people around him perceive him sparks one of the many conflicts that propels this novel, a precise case study of the delusions and abuses of power.

 

The cover of the book BlackwaterBlackwater
Michael McDowell
Michael McDowell’s sprawling novel Blackwater is many things: a family saga covering several decades of life in an affluent Southern family; a portrait of the growth of a small town over the course of much of the 20th century; and an exploration of the cost of progress. Threaded through with a substantial dose of the supernatural, McDowell’s novel features nuance and horror in equal measure.

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