1) "The Ghost of the Mary Celeste" by Valerie Martin
Martin (The Confessions of Edward Day, 2009, etc.) offers a complex, imaginative version of historical fiction, playing literary hide-and-seek with the unsolved mystery surrounding an American cargo vessel found abandoned in the Azores in 1872.
Martin follows a linear chronology. In 1860, Benjamin Briggs, who will become the Mary Celeste’s captain, courts his cousin Sallie Cobb, somewhat to the chagrin of her younger sister Hannah, a spiritual rebel who drifts into reveries during which she has visions. In 1872, the ship is found seaworthy but abandoned, with no sign of the crew, the captain, or his wife and infant daughter, who accompanied him on the voyage. In 1884, Arthur Conan Doyle, a young doctor and aspiring author, writes a fictional (and racist) solution to the mystery of what happened to the Mary Celeste that is heavily colored by his own less than happy trip to Africa three years earlier. The story, which captures the public’s imagination and launches his career, is assumed factual by many but not by Philadelphia medium Violet Petra, who readers will immediately realize is Hannah Cobb, who long ago ran away from home and assumed a new identity. Violet is being dogged by reporter Phoebe Grant, who initially wants to expose Violet as a Spiritualist fraud but finds the young woman more victim than victimizer. On an American tour in 1894, the now famous Conan Doyle meets Petra, and she impresses him with a message from his long-dead father. He invites her to London. She disappears en route but not before giving Phoebe a document that only complicates the mystery of what happened to the Mary Celeste. And really, that mystery is the least compelling element of a novel that sheds unromantic but not unsympathetic light on 19th-century New-Age spirituality and feminism while beaming a less sympathetic focus on brilliant but highly unlikable Conan Doyle. It is Violet, the lost soul, whom readers will not be able to forget.
Martin has wound the disparate threads of her novel into a haunting personal drama.
2) "The Vespertine" by Saundra Mitchell
3) "Jackaby" by William Ritter
A Sherlock Holmes–style adventure featuring the egotistical and eccentric R.F. Jackaby and his bewildered but invaluable assistant, Abigail Rook.
Inspired by her father’s paleontological expeditions and frustrated by her mother’s expectations of femininity, Abigail arrives in the New England city of New Fiddleham with a suitcase of inappropriate attire and a need for money. She finds employment with the oddball supernatural investigator Jackaby, whose previous assistants have met unfortunate or fowl ends (literally). Aiding Jackaby, flirting with the secretive Detective Charlie Cane, and trying to avoid the wrath of Chief Inspector Marlowe and Commissioner Swift, Abigail discovers that the world is stranger and more dangerous than she ever imagined. Although Abigail is not a seer like Jackaby, able to pierce the glamour of New Fiddleham’s fairy-tale and folklore inhabitants, she learns that to “see the ordinary is extraordinary indeed.” Abigail’s attention to the everyday serves as a foil to Jackaby’s paranormal perception and makes her a refreshingly realistic and agreeable heroine. Secondary characters—including Jackaby’s house—are equally enchanting and well-drawn. Ritter’s debut skillfully blends science with the supernatural and balances whimsy with violence. The smartly paced plot wraps up neatly, but the rich world of this debut demands sequels.
A magical mystery tour de force with a high body count and a list of unusual suspects. (Paranormal mystery. 12-18)
4) "The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead" by Paul Elwork
A debut novel about 13-year-old twins, Emily and Michael, who live on a large estate that borders the Delaware River.
The year is 1925 and the twins’ father, a wealthy doctor who was something of a hero, is dead. He died in the service of his country while in France, trying to save the lives of American troops injured in battle during the war. The two children thrive on stories of their father, doled out by their mother, Naomi, and the family’s only live-in help, Mary. The twins want for nothing but perhaps a little excitement, which they find in an odd and disturbing way: Emily discovers a talent she cannot explain. She can make an odd sound using her ankle bones. Soon, she and Michael employ her talent; they pretend that Emily can talk to the spirit of one of their ancestors. Regina, who died mysteriously from drowning in the Delaware while still a teenager, becomes the focus of the twins’ séances, to which they invite impressionable young friends. Their sessions soon grow increasingly elaborate and before they know it, they are performing for adults, a feat Michael savors, but Emily finds more and more uncomfortable with each lie she tells. In the meantime, Emily has been piecing together her own family’s history, reaching back to the days when her forbears moved from a plantation in Virginia to their present home, and discovering family secrets planted along the way. While her mother reacquaints herself with an old friend, Emily digs into the past and finds a family she never knew existed. Meanwhile, the ghost sessions become more serious and disturbing, leaving Emily with the uncomfortable impression that she and Michael have been opening doors that should have remained closed.
An intricate yet beautifully told story that is less about ghosts and more about secrets and how destructive they can be.
5) "The Poisoned House" by Michael Ford
A scullery maid, a great house, whispered evil and a ghost populate this first-person tale of mid-19th-century London.
Abigail’s mother died a year ago of cholera, and the 14-year-old girl misses her fiercely; Mrs. Cotton, Lord Greaves’ sister-in-law, is cruel to the staff—Abi in particular—in every possible way. Her mother was servant and nursemaid to Sam, who is now back, injured, from the Crimean War, and Abi hopes the return of Sam will both cheer the ailing Lord Greaves and protect her from Mrs. Cotton. But strange happenings pervade Greave Hall: Keys go missing; filthy handprints appear; unidentifiable noises are heard. Mrs. Cotton finds a way to blame Abi for most of it. Abi must try to puzzle out questions of her mother’s demise and other questions about their place in the household. Abigail’s fellow servant Lizzie, Lizzie’s banishment and the coal boy Adam figure in the story, as does a compliant Ouija board, which leads to a climatic confrontation and another death. Ford suddenly turns a sympathetic character evil without foreshadowing, which may strike readers as unfair, and the conclusion happens rather abruptly, but he ties up the tale very nicely by ending with Abigail’s full obituary of many decades later.
In all, scary, compelling and atmospheric enough for a satisfying chill. (Ghost story. 12 & up)
6) "Picture the Dead" by Adele Griffin