October 27th, 2013
It’s a cold, blustery October night, and there’s leaves blowing against my window. It’s the perfect time for remembering some of the greatest scary stories ever written — especially since they’re all now available as free Kindle ebooks!
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving
Ichabod Crane had heard the ghost stories about a headless horseman that rides through the night. On that very night, traveling home alone himself, under the light of a full moon he has his own legendary encounter with…ah, but there’s a twist at the end. And all these years after first hearing the story, I’ve discovered it’s just part of a much larger work. Washington Irving was the very first best-selling author in America, and he’d followed up his first sensational debut with a new collection of essays and stories — including some scary new folk tales that he’d actually made up himself! This collection also includes the famous story of Rip Van Winkle, who falls asleep before the American Revolution — and wakes up 20 years later, after the colonies have revolted and formed their own independent nation!
Edgar Allan Poe wrote a surprising number of America’s best-known horror stories, including Fall of the House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum. His poetry is also very dark — Ulalume actually takes place around Halloween night — but his obsession with morbid themes also ultimately led him to become the author of the first detective story every written. It’s a murder mystery, of course — you’ll never guess who actually committed The Murders in the Rue Morgue — and Poe later even wrote two more stories using the same detective — The Mystery of Marie Rogêt and The Purloined Letter. But there’s also a surprisingly scary tale where a murderer is unmasked in the most shocking way possible — entitled “Thou Art the Man”. Twist endings were actually very popular in Poe’s time, and I’ve been surprised just how well some of his stories hold up!
Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Percy Shelley died when he was 29 — though he was acclaimed as one of England’s greatest romantic poets. Some of this is through the efforts of his wife Mary, who promoted and edited his poems. And it’s been said that he may have had an infleunce himself on her intense novel, Frankenstein. Its idea came from a nightmare, and turned into her gothic story about about a promising young man who suffers the death of a loved one, and then embarks on a scientific experiment which he’ll later come to regret. It was first published anonymously in 1818, though it’s since gone on to become a classic monster story. (And Wikipedia has uncovered another strange historical twist. Mary WollstonecraftShelley was actually romantically interested in Washington Irving, the author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow!)
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Written just 126 years ago, Dracula is relatively modern for a classic horror story. Its author, Bram Stoker actually died in poverty just 14 years after publishing Dracula, according to Wikipedia, and his horror novel didn’t become popular until well into the next century. (It just goes to show how the invention of moving pictures changed everything — including the way we experienced our monster stories.) But interestingly, an early fan of the novel was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the Sherlock Holmes series. If you reach back 100 years, you’ll find lots of clever authors who appreciated both mystery and menace — and the joys of a good scary novel.
And 100 years later, you can read them all for free on your Kindle!
August 19th, 2013
For a shortcut to the book, point your browser to
Here’s the ultimate testimonial. This year I’ve started over 100 ebooks on my Kindle — but this is the only that I’ve actually finished! I kept turning the pages on this one to see what was going to happen next, and I felt invested in the detective and his hunt for answers. “The police procedure has a feel of authenticity,” wrote The Weekly Standard, “with extensive detail of weaponry and forensics, and the course of the investigation bears some of the messiness of real life.” They conclude that the author of the series, J. Mark Bertrand, ” is a major crime-fiction talent — one of the best police procedural writers I’ve come upon in years.”
The author spent some time learning his craft, and actually earned a master’s degree in creative writing before publishing Back on Murder. (Reading the book, I’d started to wonder if he’d actually worked as a police detective, because he seems to understand that world so well!) The book was first released in 2010, and it’s still Amazon’s #1 best-selling “police procedural” in their Mystery section. One Amazon customer even wrote that “This is the kind of book the Kindle was made for. The built in dictionary allowed me to quickly understand terms…and the note/bookmark feature allowed me to note/review my speculations on plots and twists!”
So if the author isn’t a former police detective, then who is he? I had to solve that mystery, so I tracked down the author’s personal web site. It turns out that he did in fact grew up at least close to Texas, in what he describes as Louisiana’s “humid swampland [where] he soaked up some atmosphere.” And he did eventually live in Houston, though his wife ultimately insisted that they move to South Dakota “after one hurricane too many.” So his police procedural came partly from his own memories of Houston…
The author describes himself as “a Southern ex-pat living far away…”, and part of what makes this book so compelling is there’s more at stake than simply solving the crime. The detective has been moved out of the police department’s murder investigation unit, and he’s got one chance to prove that he deserves another chance to rejoin their team. But as a reader, I was equally fascinated by just the vivid glimpses of the day-to-day life of a police detective — the behind-the-scenes banter, the hopes and the doubts, the support and the rivalries. It kept me turning pages, just to spend more time in that world, and to learn how it all came out!
It’s intriguing to see that there’s an audiobook version for just $2.99 — and that the narrator tries to change his voice for each character to give them a distinct personality. At least a few of the characters return throughout the series, according to reviews I’ve read. (The other two books in the trilogy are Pattern of Wounds and Nothing to Hide.) Some of the murder-scene details are a bit gritty, but I thought they just helped to give the story an extra kick. And in the end, I’d say this book earned the highest compliment that you can give to a mystery novel.
I thoroughly enjoyed it.
For a shortcut to the book, point your browser to
May 21st, 2013
Last week I was fighting a stomach virus — which meant a lot of time in bed reading e-books! I learned to appreciate when an author can make me smile — especially when I’m feeling miserable — but I also discovered a special service from Amazon that makes Kindle reading more fun.
Today I also wanted to share three funny ebooks that I discovered. Two of them are free, but each of the three authors swears that his story is absolutely true! “Follow the author on his numerous Hollywood adventures,” reads one book’s description, “watching as he glides smoothly from forgery to pornography to crashing the Academy Awards under the alias of a nominated screenwriter, and eventually stumbles into acting in the highest-grossing movie of all time, Titanic.” The author is Emmett James, and he played a steward in Titanic — in the movie’s credits, there’s 60 different people whose name appears before his. But he’s written a fascinating memoir of his life as a film fan — first watching movies as a young teenager, and then appearing in them as an adult. (“Admit One: My Life in Film” is available in Amazon’s Kindle store.)
But while I was reading this book, I remember all the fun special services Amazon makes available for Kindle owners at Kindle.Amazon.com. For example, there’s a “flashcard”-type game which displays clippings from an e-book you’ve read on your Kindle. (It’s a fun way to see if you can remember what you’ve read — and to review your favorite passages from the book.) You can also pull up a big list with all the passages that you’ve highlighted in all of your e-books — and an interactive list that shows which e-books you’re currently reading now. Plus, Amazon even shares a list of the most-highlighted e-book passages of all time. (#3 is a witty observation from Jane Austen. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife…”)
Reviewing my highlights, I remembered a funny free e-book that I hadn’t read for a while — and again, the author swears that his story is entirely true. “I was young and ignorant,” Mark Twain wrote about the first time he came to the American west at the age of 26. “I little thought that I would not see the end of that three-month pleasure excursion for six or seven uncommonly long years!”
Roughing It was the second book Mark Twain ever wrote — in 1870, at the age of 35, looking fondly back at the wild experiences that launched his career. His older brother (Orion Clemens) had been appointed the Territorial Secretary of Nevada for the three years before it became a U.S. state in 1864, and Mark Twain tagged along on the stagecoach ride out west. He remembers being amused that “My brother, the Secretary, took along about four pounds of United States statutes and six pounds of Unabridged Dictionary” — only to discover later that it would’ve been much easier to have copies mailed to Nevada. But mostly I love the book’s friendly spirit, remembering those moments on the trail when “we smoked a final pipe, and swapped a final yarn,” or the campfires “around which the most impossible reminiscences sound plausible, instructive, and profoundly entertaining.”
The brothers sleep in a stagecoach packed with mail sacks, often removing everything but their underwear to stay cool in the frontier heat. And at night as the stagecoach crosses through shallow streams, it tosses its sleeping passengers back and forth while traveling the steep hills on the river’s bank.
“First we would all be down in a pile at the forward end of the stage, nearly in a sitting posture, and in a second we would shoot to the other end, and stand on our heads. And we would sprawl and kick, too, and ward off ends and corners of mail- bags that came lumbering over us and about us; and as the dust rose from the tumult, we would all sneeze in chorus, and the majority of us would grumble, and probably say some hasty thing, like: “Take your elbow out of my ribs! — can’t you quit crowding?”
“Every time we avalanched from one end of the stage to the other, the Unabridged Dictionary would come too; and every time it came it damaged somebody…”
Ironically, it was because of Monty Python that I discovered the third funny e-book. In 1975, Monty Python’s Michael Palin appeared in a TV adaptation of the humorous travelogue “Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog),” with Tim Curry playing the part of the book’s author, Jerome K. Jerome. The adapted script was written by Tom Stoppard, the famous author who 20 years later would win an Academy Award for his screenplay for Shakespeare in Love. “Three Men in a Boat” is a great, classic piece of British humor, available for free at gutenberg.org or for 99 cents in Amazon’s Kindle store. Even though it was written in 1889, the book still reads like a long comedy monologue, and even today it can always makes me laugh.
Here’s how Jerome K. Jerome describes how rainy weather can really spoil your boating expedition.
It is evening. You are wet through, and there is a good two inches of water in the boat, and all the things are damp. You find a place on the banks that is not quite so puddly as other places you have seen, and you land and lug out the tent, and two of you proceed to fix it.
It is soaked and heavy, and it flops about, and tumbles down on you, and clings round your head and makes you mad. The rain is pouring steadily down all the time. It is difficult enough to fix a tent in dry weather: in wet, the task becomes herculean. Instead of helping you, it seems to you that the other man is simply playing the fool. Just as you get your side beautifully fixed, he gives it a hoist from his end, and spoils it all.
“Here! what are you up to?” you call out.
“What are you up to?” he retorts; “leggo, can’t you…?”
I guess it’s just always fun to laugh at someone else’s troubles — especially when you’re sick in bed with troubles of your own!
April 30th, 2013
I just finished reading The Wind in the Willows, a wonderful classic tale about the society of animals that lives along the riverbank — including a mole, a badger, a rat, and a toad. It’s available as a free e-book in Amazon’s Kindle store. But I want to share one of my favorite stories ever about a famous author — especially since his book left me smiling and full of a feeling like summer-time bliss. And it turns out the book has a fascinating history almost as good a story as the book itself.
Author Kenneth Grahame was the secretary of the Bank of England until the age of 49. He hadn’t written a work of fiction in 10 years, but based the book’s most memorable character, Mr. Toad, on his enthusiastic eight-year-old son, Alastair. The book would become a fondly-remembered classic, mixing its funny story with adult allegories celebrating the joy of springtime and the beauty of the great outdoors. “When I was very young…” remembered one reviewer on Amazon, “our school master used to read to us from Wind in the Willows. The stories had a magical quality and a few weeks ago, as a somewhat older person, I got to wondering whether they would still have that sense of enchantment that held us so captivated all those years ago.
“I was NOT disappointed….”
Later A. A. Milne, the author of Winnie the Pooh, joked that “Reading these delicately lovely visions of childhood, you might have wondered that he could be mixed up with anything so unlovely as a bank; and it may be presumed that at the bank an equal surprise was felt that such a responsible official could be mixed up with beauty.” Grahame was in his mid-60s by the time Milne first published his first Pooh story, though Milne once wrote that “I feel sometimes that it was I who wrote it and recommended it to Kenneth Grahame.” Later, when Grahame was 70 years old, A. A. Milne adapted Grahame’s book into a stage play (called “Toad of Toad Hall”), and one night the two men even shared a theatre box together.
He sat there, an old man now, as eager as any child in the audience, and on the occasions (fortunately not too rare) when he could recognise his own words, his eyes caught his wife’s, and they smiled at each other, and seemed to be saying: ‘I wrote that’ — ‘Yes, dear, you wrote that,’ and they nodded happily at each other, and turned their eyes again to the stage.
Milne later wrote an introduction for the book, remembering that it “was not immediately the success which is should have been.” But he also remembers that almost instantly Grahame had attracted some impressive admirers. In 1909, in one of his last month’s in office, Theodore Roosevelt, the president of the United States, took time to write a personal letter in 1909 thanking Kenneth Grahame for his book. (“I felt I must give myself the pleasure of telling you how much we had all enjoyed your book…”) He’d been a bigger fan of Grahame’s earlier books at first, but wrote that “Mrs. Roosevelt and two of the boys, Kermit and Ted, all quite independently, got hold of The Wind in the Willows and took such a delight in it that I began to feel that I might have to revise my judgment.
“Then Mrs. Roosevelt read it aloud to the younger children, and I listened now and then. Now I have read it and reread it, and have come to accept the characters as old friends… Indeed, I feel about going to Africa very much as the seafaring rat did when he almost made the water rat wish to forsake everything and start wandering.”
Six weeks later, Roosevelt left office — and embarked on a safari of Africa.
Americans may remember that when Disneyland opened in the 1950s, one of its first rides (“Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride”) was inspired by Disney’s cartoon version of Grahame’s book. But what’s less-known is the trouble that Walt Disney had in filming the story. It was intended to be one of his studios first animated movies, just four years after Snow White (their first feature-length cartoon), according to Wikipedia. Unfortunately, the story’s plot violated the Hays Code, the notorious film-production guidelines which covered all American movies.
In the book, Mr. Toad ultimately steals (and crashes) a motor car. And while he goes to jail, he escapes, and remains a misguided but sympathetic character throughout the story. “The sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin,” the Hays Code insisted. Disney’s version ultimately had to be re-written so that Mr. Toad was instead wrongfully framed of stealing the motor car.
Unfortunately, World War II then interrupted the film’s production (as many of Disney’s animators were drafted into the military), while also putting a strain on the studio’s finances. In the end, it took eight years until a shorter version of the cartoon was released instead, with Mr. Toad’s adventures bundled with the animated version of another classic story — The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
The seventh chapter of Grahame’s book — “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” — proved to be especially popular. It describes the mole and rat searching for a lost animal, and instead having an almost religious experience when, off in the woods, they hear the distant music of Pan. It was the favorite chapter of A. A. Milne’s wife, remembers his son Christopher, who wrote that she “read to me again and again with always, towards the end, the catch in the voice and the long pause to find her handkerchief and blow her nose…” And 60 years later, in 1967, the rock band Pink Floyd used its title as the name of their debut album.
But here’s the most lovely piece of trivia about the life of Kenneth Grahame. Apparently because of the popularity of his children’s book’s, Grahame was eventually able to retire to the countryside by the River Thames.
And he was finally able to enjoy the idyllic county life that he’d described so lovingly for his own characters.
Visit tinyurl.com/MrToadEbook for
the free e-book version
or click here
January 22nd, 2013
So America inaugurated a president on Monday. But there’s a fun way to give it some context with your Kindle. In 2010 I was delighted to discover all the presidential inaugural addresses are available as a free Kindle ebook! What did other presidents say in their own famous speeches? They’re all there, from Bush and Clinton down through Reagan, Carter, Nixon, Johnson, and Kennedy…all the way to the very first presidential inaugural address ever given, by George Washington.
It was on a balcony in New York City that Washington stood, and history records that he seemed nervous. “[N]o event could have filled me with greater anxieties,” he begins his speech, than to have received the news that he’d been elected America’s very first president. Washington opens his speech by describing his home, “a retreat which I had chosen with the fondest predilection,” saying that he’d hoped to settle down there and spend his old age there in comfort. (He was already 57…) And he says modestly that he’s worried about the difficulties ahead, and hopes his countrymen will still have some affection for him if some new incapability appears later — “as well as disinclination for the weighty and untried cares before me!”
I love using my Kindle like a time machine, and you can also travel forward a few years to read the inaugural address of Thomas Jefferson in 1801, respectively. President Harrison, the 9th President of the United States, insisted on reading his entire two-hour inauguration speech – the longest in U.S. history – during a cold and rainy day in Washington D.C. He refused to wear a hat or coat, possibly trying to remind the audience that he was still the tough military general that had served in the War of 1812. And ironically, he died three weeks later after catching pneumonia.
Wikipedia insists that long speech was unrelated to Harrison’s death, but it’s still fun to sneak a peek at the hopes he held for the four years he never got to see. Every famous president from American history has their own inauguration speech — President Kennedy, President Truman, and one especially poetic address by Abraham Lincoln. And it was during his inaugural speech that Franklin Roosevelt made one of his most famous statements.
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
It was just 28 years later that President Kennedy was inaugurated, and that speech is also in the collection, featuring an optimistic call to duty. (“My fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”) I’m looking forward to reading all the speeches, and it’ll be fun to flit around from century to century.
And of course, you can always use the web browser on your Kindle to read a transcript of the newest presidential inaugural speech…from Monday!
January 13th, 2013
My girlfriend actually cried when I showed her her birthday present last year. I’d written her a Kindle ebook about her dog!
I’d told her I’d hidden her present somewhere in the apartment — not in the kitchen or in the living room, but somewhere close to the bed. “Is it on your nightstand? Nope, there’s nothing here but your Kindle… But let’s turn it on anyways and take a look. Well, there’s nothing here on your home page. But maybe we need to look in the Kindle’s store…”
I’d told her it was a scavenger hunt, and the first clue would come up when she typed in her dog’s name. So she did — and there he was! She saw a picture of her own dog staring back at her — as the cover of a Kindle ebook.
She sat there, stunned. Smiling, but stunned. Her eyes moistened. She didn’t move for a few seconds. I think she thought that I’d hacked into Amazon’s Kindle store somehow, and pasted her dog’s picture onto one of their ebooks. But then she pressed the button that brings up the ebook’s description on Amazon.com.
Lucca is a cuddly Cocker Spaniel dog who belongs to a woman named TC. “I love TC very much,” reads the caption on one photo. “And she loves Lucca….”
Since I’d wanted to give her a special gift, I watched her face nervously to see her reaction. She’d started to read the rest of its page on Amazon, but then got too excited, and just downloaded the ebook straight to her Kindle. And when she opened it, every page seemed to dazzle her.
on a very special birthday
“TC says Lucca is the best dog in the world.
He cuddles with you on the couch while you’re watching TV…”
Last year TC had given me a smartphone for Christmas with a built-in camera, and I’d used it all year long to snap photos of her dog. (There’s 32 of them in the book.) Whenever Lucca did something cute, there was that camera in my pocket on the Christmas-gift smartphone. And that spring when our dog became friends with the cat downstairs, I was able to get some great pictures.
You can see those pictures in color if you download the book to your smartphone (or to your Kindle Fire tablet). But the dog’s charm always jumps out from his shaggy face, even on a regular black and white Kindle. If you want to see a preview, just point your computer’s web browser to tinyurl.com/GoodReadsDog – but the whole ebook is free through Thursday, so you could just download the whole ebook to your Kindle (or to one of the free Kindle apps), and then give our dog a look, from this special URL.
TC never did read the rest of the book’s description at Amazon, but I think she would’ve liked it. (“This ebook collects pictures with clever captions into a quick look at the life of a very happy pet dog…Our Dog Lucca takes you on a visit to that happy house where Lucca lives – and introduces you to a very charming dog.”) It’d feel a little weird to be making our pet dog into something famous, so if it became popular we’d probably donate most of any proceeds to an animal rescue shelter. Lucca is a “rescue” dog, and sometimes we wonder if that’s made him extra sweet.
But as I walked past our Christmas tree that year, at least I knew that Lucca had helped make my girlfriend’s birthday feel magical.
December 25th, 2012
Amazon’s having a special sale on Kindle ebooks for Christmas Day. For December 25th only, they’re selling The Polar Express and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at a big discount (as well as five romance novels, plus The Lightning Thief, and even Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter) To see the sale, just point your browser to tinyurl.com/ChristmasDayEbooks.
But there’s also a lot of really wonderful free Christmas stories that are available all year long…
There’s one short Christmas story that I absolutely love — by one of my favorite authors. Ernest Hemingway called him “one of the two best authors in America” — and yet his greatest novel isn’t available on the Kindle. Nelson Algren wrote The Man With the Golden Arm, an unforgettable look at Chicago and its lowlifes, in 1950, and it won a National Book Award. But my personal favorite Algren book was always The Last Carousel, another dazzling collection of short works from throughout his career,which he’d published in 1973.
At the age of 64, the author had hand-picked each story himself – though unfortunately The Last Carousel also isn’t available on the Kindle. But one December I discovered that you can still read one of its most touching stories online. On December 4, 1949, the Chicago Sunday Tribune published “Merry Christmas, Mr. Mark,” a story Algren wrote at the height of career, at the same time as his award-winning novel. The 40-year-old novelist remembered being a young newsboy in the 1920s, braving the snows to sell The Saturday Evening Blade at an intersection by the cemetery — and how they’d tried to swindle their customers!
But by the end, they’ve learned a valuable lesson about Christmas.
Old Christmas by Washington Irving
He was America’s first internationally popular author, and he wrote two timeless stories — Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. But he also fathered many of our Christmas traditions. At the age of 29, when he was starting his career in 1812, Irving added five nostalgic Christmas stories to a collection of writing, and for one dream sequence, imagined what would happen if St. Nicholas flew over the forests in a flying sleigh. That’s believed to have inspired many of the subsequent stories about Santa Claus and his flying reindeer!
And the stories had an even greater impact. Irving also researched holiday traditions as far back as 1652, and according to Wikipedia, and his popular stories “contributed to the revival and reinterpretation of the Christmas holiday in the United States.” Even Charles Dickens himself said that Irving’s stories influenced his own famous novella, A Christmas Carol.
Two Years Before the Mast (Christmas chapter) by Richard Henry Dana
When I lived near San Francisco, it was especially fun to read what was essentially a blog post about Christmas in the city…written in 1836! Back then, the only people in San Francisco were the handful of hard-working sailors who ferried animal hides around the continent. And their life was still hard, even on Christmas Day!
Friday, December 25th. This day was Christmas; and as it rained all day long, and there were no hides to take in, and nothing especial to do, the captain gave us a holiday, (the first we had had since leaving Boston,) and plum duff for dinner. The Russian brig, following the Old Style, had celebrated their Christmas eleven days before; when they had a grand blow-out and (as our men said) drank, in the forecastle, a barrel of gin, ate up a bag of tallow, and made a soup of the skin…
This was 13 years before California became a state, and it was a special experience to read this book more than 175 years later. It’s one of the first moments where I’ve felt such an intimate connection to someone who lived nearly two centuries ago. While young Richard Henry Dana was traveling in what was then a foreign land, he seems lonely but intrigued, which gave him a special willingness to share his sincere human reactions with a touching humility.
I love how the Kindle can connect you to different people in different places, and even from different times. And maybe that feeling is even more special on Christmas Day, because it reminds you of the grand traditions that have been handed down for centuries, and the universal feelings behind it.
Happy holidays, everyone!
November 18th, 2012
I wrote a funny ebook for Thanksgiving, and I’d like to share it with all of my readers for free. Just point your computer’s web browser to TinyURL.com/TurkeyBook , and Amazon will send it to your Kindle at no charge. And if you read it on your Kindle Fire (or on one of Amazon’s apps), you’ll even be able to see the illustrations in color. Have a happy Thanksgiving!
Here’s the backstory…
After years of blogging about new authors writing exciting new ebooks for the Kindle, I’d decided last year that I had to try writing one too. So I dreamed up a wild story about four talking turkeys all awaiting the farmer’s axe on Thanksgiving Day – but one of them has a plan for escaping! To try to make it even more interesting, I included 12 different illustrations, and I even wrote the whole thing in rhyme.
“For Thanksgiving, try this game. Find the guilty turkey’s name…!”
But Amazon surprised me by publishing my book within just 12 hours from the time I’d submitted it to the Kindle Store. (I’d heard longer estimates of “24 to 48 hours.”) So I woke up the next morning to discover that somehow my turkeys had already snuck onto Amazon’s list of the best-selling children’s ebooks about animals – and they’d stolen the #73 spot from a book about Curious George!
I still get a smile when I remember that Thanksgiving. Within another hour, The Turkey Mystery Rhyme had made it into the top six on Amazon’s list of children’s ebooks about birds, one notch above a book I’d first read back in first grade! I wrote to one of my friends that “I was almost paralyzed with excitement when I finally saw it for the first time on Amazon.” And it also made me pause for a minute during the holidays, and think a hopeful thought about the future.
“I love books, And when I read books, I go to a special place. And now I’m in that special place – I’m on the other side of the page, so to speak. And that makes me feel somehow like I’ve inherited some of the importance of the other books I usually read. (Now instead of looking at other people’s books at Amazon.com and their thumbnail images, it’s my book, and my thumbnail image…)
I’ve really been struck and blind-sided by how easy it was – how it all came together, and how everything I needed was already there…”
It was the day when self-publishing first started to feel real to me – with all the big things that that implied about the future of books. And with that in mind, I ended the e-mail by saying “I’ve tried to savor this day because it will always be my only first ebook.”
So visit this URL to check out my free rhyming Thanksgiving turkey mystery…
And I hope you have a very happy Thanksgiving.
October 25th, 2012
Halloween’s coming up, so it’s a great time for some scary stories. Try the pioneering gothic fiction from American horror author Edgar Allan Poe (including many free editions of his scariest stories). And this Halloween, in a dark corner of the Kindle Store, you can also find free editions of Frankenstein and Dracula. But if you’re looking for a really exotic scare, don’t don’t overlook this forgotten treasure chest: the dark and quirky original stories by the Brothers Grimm.
Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm is a free ebook that collects over 200 gnarly pieces of authentic folklore that the two brothers had carefully collected over their lifetime. The table of contents even supplies the original German titles for the stories (though the collection is written in English), so the tale “Little Snow-White” is also identified as “Sneewittchen.” (And “The Bremen Town Musicians” was originally called “Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten”.)
I’m not kidding about the stories being dark, quirky, and gnarly. One of them is titled “The Girl Without Hands,” and there’s some absolutely horrifying plot twists in “Our Lady’s Child” (“Marienkind”). A mute queen’s three children are kidnapped by the Virgin Mary, and the queen is then burned at the stake because the king’s councilors believe that the queen killed and ate them herself. (Surprisingly, there is a happy ending, but the twists along the way are pretty hair-raising…)
And early in the book is another tale called “The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was.” A man on the road points him to the tree “where seven men have married the ropemaker’s daughter, and are now learning how to fly.”
“Sit down below it, and wait till night comes, and you will soon learn how to shudder…”
But instead, the youth worries about whether they’re cold, as “the wind knocked the hanged men against each other.” So he sets them around his campfire, but “they sat there and did not stir, and the fire caught their clothes…” Soon his fearlessness has led him to take a king’s challenge of spending three nights in a haunted castle, where he’s assaulted by black cats and dogs “from every hole and corner,” all carrying red hot chains. He kills them with his cutting knife, crying “Away with ye, vermin,” and then lies down to sleep in the haunted bed…
The story-telling is very simple, but it’s still a wild and unpredictable experience that I’m sure I’ll never forget. Just remember that while these are authentic fairy tales, they’re not necessarily the cute and colorful legends you might be expecting! So if instead you’re looking for a “cute and cuddly” free fairy tale book this Halloween, there’s also free editions of the tales of Beatrix Potter — which includes the tale of Peter Rabbit!
October 23rd, 2012
Playboy magazine is re-publishing their interview
with a young Jon Stewart
I was surprised by the big reaction last week to my post about political ebooks for the Kindle. But maybe it’s just because everyone loves a free ebook — so here’s another one I discovered for the Kindle Fire from the University of Chicago. They give away one free ebook each month, and this time it’s a fascinating look at America’s historic debates between presidential candidates, by a man “who was there at the creation of the modern political debate.” And I’ve also found several other fun (and cheap) ebooks on politics that you can download for your Kindle!
Some of the best political content for the Kindle isn’t listed as an ebook in Amazon’s Kindle Store — it’s being delivered as a Kindle Single! Six weeks ago I reported on Playboy magazine, and their efforts to convert their best interviews into Kindle Singles to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the magazine’s first interview with Miles Davis. Since then they’ve uploaded 32 of their 50 best interviews, including some fascinating conversations with everyone from Jon Stewart and Tina Fey to Ayn Rand and even Fidel Castro. There’s a famous interview with Betty Friedan — one of the first feminists — and counter-culture icons like Bob Dylan and Timothy Leary, as well as economist Milton Friedman and cyclist Lance Armstrong. Best of all, you can read the complete text of each interview for just 99 cents in a special anniversary edition. (To browser the complete selection, just point your browser to this special shortcut – tinyurl.com/PlayboyEbooks .)
The free ebook from the Univeristy of Chicago is called Inside the Presidential Debates: Their Improbable Past and Promising Future, and it’s written by a real insider in both politics and broadcasting. President Kennedy appointed Newton N. Minow to be one of seven FCC commissioners back in 1961, and he co-authored this book with Craig L. LaMay, an associate professor of journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. “The riveting first-person stories he and Craig LaMay tell of debates in one election after another take us to the heart of American political life,” gushed Judy Woodruff in a review of the book, saying that ultimately their insider accounts “argue for a continued central role for debates in our electoral process. Their book is must reading for anyone who wants to understand how to ensure that comes about.”
There’s a humorous footnote. Minow is also famous for complaining in 1961 that a day’s worth of TV programming is simply a “vast wasteland” — a phrase that’s still quoted today, according to Wikipedia. This provoked a humorous response from Sherwood Schwartz, a TV producer who at the time was creating the show Gilligan’s Island. The classic situation comedy followed seven silly castaways who were shipwrecked on a deserted island — and in honor of the FCC commissioner, he nicknamed their boat the S. S. Minnow.
This book isn’t in the Kindle Store, but it’s still possible to upload it onto your Kindle Fire. For a shortcut to their web page, go to tinyurl.com/FreeDebateEbook. Enter your e-mail address, and they’ll send you a link where you can download a version to read on the Bluefire or Aldiko reading apps. And remember, you can also use your Kindle Fire to watch episodes of Gilligan’s Island in Minow’s honor — and they’re also available online through Amazon’s Instant Video web page. (They’re all free if you’re a subscriber to Amazon Prime.)
October 16th, 2012
It’s always exciting when America starts planning to elect its next President. But this year, at least some of the action found its way onto the Kindle.
Two political science professors have teamed up to create a free ebook about the 2012 Presidential Election — and they’re publishing its first four chapters while the election is taking place! “We typically work far too slowly to capitalize on interest in the election among journalists, strategists, and citizens…” they write in the book’s first chapter. But for this book, the team will actually be writing at stops along the campaign trail while also crunching lots of data about everything from polls to the economy and even political ad spending. “The result promises to be the only book about the election that combines on-the-ground reporting, social science, and quantitative data,” according to the book’s description at Amazon, ” in order to look beyond the anecdote, folklore, and conventional wisdom that too often pass for analysis of presidential elections.”
But Amazon’s also getting in on the political action. In August they launched a “Political Heat Map” of the United States, which calculates whether a state should be displayed in blue (liberal) or red (conservative) based on which political books Amazon is selling there! “Customers can click on any state on the Amazon Election Heat Map to see the percentage of conservative and liberal books sold in that state,” Amazon explained in a press release, “as well as the top 5 best-selling conservative and liberal books per state.”
They’re using Kindle ebook sales (as well as print sales), and it’s currently showing a 45 states which are buying more conservative books than liberal books. “Book sales by geography always have interesting things to say about our states,” notes a senior book editor at Amazon, “and an election season is a particularly good time to use this data to help customers follow the changing political conversation across the country.”
It’s a fun way to start exploring the political books available at Amazon — and they’ve also added some interesting additional calculations. Which presidential candidate is selling more copies of their latest book? It’s Barack Obama, who’s selling six copies of The Audacity of Hope for every four copies that Mitt Romney sells of his own biography, The Case for American Greatness. But it’s exactly the opposite when you compare the book-sale figures for the vice presidential candidates. Democrat Joe Biden published Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics back in 2007, but his books still represent just 31% of the total figure for ebooks sold by all vice presidential candidates — while Amazon awards the remaining 69% to Paul Ryan for the book Young Guns (which he co-authored with Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy).
“Just remember, books aren’t votes,” Amazon warns at the corner of the web page, “so a map of book purchases may reflect curiosity as much as commitment.” But I’ll admit that it got me thinking about some ebooks for my Kindle that I otherwise wouldn’t have considered. Just two weeks, Stephen Colbert published a new funny political book called America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t — and it’s available in both the print and ebook format. That’s made it the #1 and the #2 best-selling liberal book on Amazon — while on the conservative list, the #1 and #3 best-selling books are also two versions of the same book. (Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever.) But ironically, the #2 best-selling book on the conservative list was written more than 50 years ago.
It’s Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand!
September 10th, 2012
Amazon made another big announcement on Thursday. They’re actually launching a new kind of ebook — the Kindle Serials — where the purchase price covers not only all the current chapters of an ebook, but any new chapters that the author writes in the future. “Kindle Serials are stories published in episodes,” Amazon explains on a new web page in the Kindle Store. “When you buy a Kindle Serial, you will receive all existing episodes on your Kindle immediately, followed by future episodes as they are published.”
And in a new twist, Amazon’s creating discussion areas dedicated to each serialized books, so authors can monitor ongoing discussions about what they’re writing in real-time — and maybe even get some new ideas about how to finish their stories
To celebrate, Amazon is releasing free editions of two famous 19th-century novels that were both originally published in a serialized format in monthly magazines. And they’ve also lined up eight more serial novels to inaugurate the launch of this new format for Kindle content. The selection includes Neal Pollack’s new thriller, Downward-Facing Death, and Amazon featured him prominently in their announcement of the program. “When Amazon Publishing told me about the Kindle Serials program, I wanted to participate right away,” Pollack admits in Amazon’s press release. “I’ve been writing serialized fiction since I was a kid, and I’m thrilled to be doing it again, nearly 30 years later, with an (at least somewhat) adult sensibility.”
The page for Pollack’s book in the Kindle Store gives a good idea of how the program will work. The book’s description identifies how may “episodes” are already written — right now, just one, published on September 6th — and it provides a schedule for when new episodes will be released. Pollack is estimating that he’ll ultimately write a total of six episodes, with a new episode being delivered once a month — whereas the web page for Andrew Peterson’s new thriller promises his new episodes will be delivered every two weeks. “Serialized fiction is perfect for contemporary book culture,” Pollack added in Amazon’s press release, “where writers interact with their readers directly and books can be delivered with an immediacy that the old pulp writers never could have imagined. It’s fast and fun and you barely have time to blink.
“I can’t wait to see how my book ends!”
My first reaction is that Amazon’s discussion boards really could offer a radical and exciting new way for authors to create fiction. Amazon’s calling it “another innovation for authors and readers,” and bragging that it extends the Kindle’s “already rich and unique content ecosystem” (which also includes the ability to publish shorter ebooks as “Kindle Singles” and the special Kindle Owner’s Lending Library that’s available for Amazon Prime customers). I’m not sure if the new feature is targetted at amateur authors, in order to attract the next big sensation into Amazon’s own publishing universe — or if this feature is designed to appeal to big-name, established novelists. But there’s one very important caveat: Kindle Serials are made available exclusively in Amazon’s Kindle Store, so authors that choose to publish them for Kindle audiences apparently won’t be able to reach readers on, for example, the Nook.
It’s an interesting approach, and Amazon’s press release insisted that, “As with Kindle Singles, we’re aiming to open up new ways for authors to write and customers to enjoy great writing,” adding “we think people are going to love this format.” And I really have to give Amazon some credit. They announced this new program in one of the most philosophical press releases that I’ve ever seen.
Long before the advent of digital publishing, great writers like Charles Dickens wrote many of their works serially, a practice that offered a particular rhythm, often punctuated by cliffhangers to keep readers looking forward to the next episode….
“Serialized content, whether it’s a TV show, movie trilogy or written work, is a great and much-loved form of entertainment – it leaves viewers and readers wanting more, eagerly anticipating the fates of their favorite characters,” said Jeff Belle, Vice President, Amazon Publishing. “With Kindle Serials, we’re bringing episodic books to readers in a unique way that’s seamless and hassle-free, with new episodes being added to the book as they’re published.
And readers can discuss the stories on Amazon discussion boards as they’re being written – like virtual water cooler conversations – perhaps even influencing where the next episode may go…!”
September 1st, 2012
My girlfriend reads on her Kindle a lot — and it lead us to a very funny conversation about ebooks. As we laughed and laughed, and enjoyed a spontaneous moment somewhere in the 21st century, it made me think about the way that we read books now. And also about how it’s changed…
It was sometime after midnight, and I was exhausted as I crawled into bed. But my girlfriend wasn’t ready to put down her Kindle yet. “I’m at 98%,” she explained. She was engrossed in another ebook, and she’d finally reached it’s dramatic conclusion…
My girlfriend reads several books a week, so she tries to stick to the free section of Amazon’s Kindle Store. She’s read dozens of original novels, many by amateur authors who are writing their very first ebook. When she finds a good one, she’ll often read all the way through in one sitting. I respected that, so I didn’t want to interrupt her.
“It’s a science-fiction fantasy,” she said hurriedly — then went back to her reading. But that obviously still left me with a lot of unanswered questions. Before I drifted off the sleep, I still wanted one last piece of conversation. “At least tell me the title…”
She had a little trouble even remembering where to look for the title on her Kindle, but she finally found it at the top of the screen. “Cloak,” she said.
“Oh…” I said.
And then the word hung in the air….
It was like we were both considering how little the title really told me. In the friendly silence, it was begging for a wise-crack. And then finally, I broke the silence.
“I hear he wrote a sequel. It was called…Chair.”
It was quiet for a second — until we both busted up laughing. And then we laughed at how hard we were laughing. And then I tried to milk the joke even further. “I heard there was also a pre-quel. It was called…Coverlet.” And we laughed some more…
I love those magic minutes at the end of the day, so I understand that it’s the perfect time to read on a Kindle. It feels like “extra” time, where the day’s business has already begun falling away into yesterday. The Kindle delivers an endless supply of new stories, in some kind of science-fiction future where novels are free. But it’s also the perfect time for a silly joke.
“In his first draft, the book was called Sock,” I teased. “But then the author decided ‘I need something more dramatic…’”
To be fair, my girlfriend really enjoyed the book — and other reviewers on Amazon seemed to agree. “I was blown away by the sheer depth of the author’s imagination,” wrote one reader on Amazon. “This is one creative, original book. I was so excited that I let my daughter read the chapters as I finished them… The characters are quirky, well-developed, and loveable.”
And of course, I told my girlfriend that the book’s one-word title had already given me more laughter than I’d ever expected. But the next morning, she told me that she’d looked up the book on Amazon, and the author was, in fact, going to write a sequel to Cloak. “It’s called, Dagger,” she said.
And then we giggled and giggled and laughed some more…
July 3rd, 2012
Last month, a fascinating exhibit opened at the Library of Congress. It identified and celebrated 88 different books which had “shaped America”, even changing the lives of many Americans. The list is available online, along with a thoughtful explanation for each of the selections. And best of all, 61 of the books are available in Amazon’s Kindle Store — and most of them are free!
I really enjoyed reading their descriptions of each book and the ways they’d impacted America. ” Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, for example, is described as “The first science fiction novel to become a bestseller,” and they note that it’s now considered a science fiction classic. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is included as “The defining novel of the 1950s Beat Generation (which Kerouac named)…,” a book which “influenced artists such as Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Hunter S. Thompson…” There’s even three books on their list which are older than America itself — two influential books by Benjamin Franklin from the mid-1700s, and Thomas Paine’s revolutionary tract, Common Sense
If your favorite book isn’t on the list, it might be later. The Library of Congress is asking the public to nominate other books to be included on the list, and to share their stories about how they’ve been changed by the influential books that they’ve read. “This list is a starting point…” announced James H. Billington, the official Librarian of the U.S. Congress. “[T]he list is intended to spark a national conversation on books written by Americans that have influenced our lives, whether they appear on this initial list or not.”
He added a hope that Americans would read these books and have conversations about them. Sure enough, soon blogs around the web were weighing in with their thoughts. One CNN blogger called it “admirably inclusive… The Library of Congress list also includes lowbrow literature alongside the serious novels you might find in the ‘Harvard Classics’ anthology, most notably children’s books from The Cat in the Hat and Goodnight Moon to Little Women and Where the Wild Things Are. And someone calling themself “The Delaware Libertarian” complained that they’d left out what are also some of my favorite books, including Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, and the wonderful USA Trilogy by John Dos Passos.
But maybe that’s the ultimate way to celebrate America: By recognizing that everyone has their own story — their own personal memories of books that had changed their life. I remember being inspired to drive across America after reading On the Road – but I also know that there’s many more books which have probably touched their readers in equally powerful ways. Benjamin Franklin himself formed the first public library in America, specifically because he believed that simply having books available could improve the lives of the people around him. He’d be honored that three of his books made it onto this list, but he’d probably be even more proud to know that more than 250 years later, Americans are still reading books — and celebrating them.
Below is the complete list from the Library of Congress of
88 Books that Shaped America
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884)
Alcoholics Anonymous by anonymous (1939)
American Cookery by Amelia Simmons (1796)
The American Woman’s Home by Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe (1869)
And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts (1987)
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (1957)
The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley (1965)
Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown (1970)
The Call of the Wild by Jack London (1903)
The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss (1957)
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (1952)
Common Sense by Thomas Paine (1776)
The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care by Benjamin Spock (1946)
Cosmos by Carl Sagan (1980)
A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible by anonymous (1788)
The Double Helix by James D. Watson (1968)
The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams (1907)
Experiments and Observations on Electricity by Benjamin Franklin (1751)
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)
Family Limitation by Margaret Sanger (1914)
The Federalist by anonymous (1787)
The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (1963)
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (1963)
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (1940)
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (1936)
Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown (1947)
A Grammatical Institute of the English Language by Noah Webster (1783)
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
Harriet, the Moses of Her People by Sarah H. Bradford (1901)
The History of Standard Oil by Ida Tarbell (1904)
History of the Expedition Under the Command of the Captains Lewis and Clark by Meriwether Lewis (1814)
How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis (1890)
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (1936)
Howl by Allen Ginsberg (1956)
The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O’Neill (1946)
Idaho: A Guide in Word and Pictures by Federal Writers’ Project (1937)
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966)
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952)
Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer (1931)
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (1906)
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (1855)
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving (1820)
Little Women, or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy by Louisa May Alcott (1868)
Mark, the Match Boy by Horatio Alger Jr. (1869)
McGuffey’s Newly Revised Eclectic Primer by William Holmes McGuffey (1836)
Moby-Dick; or The Whale by Herman Melville (1851)
The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass (1845)
Native Son by Richard Wright (1940)
New England Primer by anonymous (1803)
New Hampshire by Robert Frost (1923)
On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957)
Our Bodies, Ourselves by Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (1971)
Our Town: A Play by Thornton Wilder (1938)
Peter Parley’s Universal History by Samuel Goodrich (1837)
Poems by Emily Dickinson (1890)
Poor Richard Improved and The Way to Wealth by Benjamin Franklin (1758)
Pragmatism by William James (1907)
The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin, LL.D. by Benjamin Franklin (1793)
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (1895)
Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett (1929)
Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey (1912)
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)
Sexual Behavior in the Human Male by Alfred C. Kinsey (1948)
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962)
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (1962)
The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois (1903)
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (1929)
Spring and All by William Carlos Williams (1923)
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert E. Heinlein (1961)
A Street in Bronzeville by Gwendolyn Brooks (1945)
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams (1947)
A Survey of the Roads of the United States of America by Christopher Colles (1789)
Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1914)
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
A Treasury of American Folklore by Benjamin A. Botkin (1944)
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943)
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)
Unsafe at Any Speed by Ralph Nader (1965)
Walden; or Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau (1854)
The Weary Blues by Langston Hughes (1925)
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (1963)
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1900)
The Words of Cesar Chavez by Cesar Chavez (2002)
March 25th, 2012
You can’t pass through Northern California without hearing about Susie Bright. She’s an unapologetic “sex educator” and author, and a cutting-edge liberal who survived the big cultural revolution in the 1970s, then made a career out of analyzing what happened next. Now she’s finally published a tell-all memoir about her life – and at least until midnight on Sunday, it’s available as a free Kindle ebook!
“I have a very scary feeling Susie Bright is not making any of this up,” joked cartoonist Alison Bechdel. The book’s title is “Big Sex, Little Death,” and it’s described on Amazon as a “stunning and courageous coming-of-age story…Susie Bright opens her heart and her life.” Though she started life as a Girl Scout, the book describes the experiences that changed her life, “including her early involvement with notorious high school radicals The Red Tide… Big Sex Little Death is an explosive yet intimate memoir that’s pure Susie: bold, free-spirited, unpredictable—larger than life, yet utterly true to life.”
I actually met Susie Bright once through a friend of a friend. (I remember that I’d told her about my teenaged crush on Annette Funicello, while she told me about the history of San Francisco’s strip clubs!) So I have to admit I was touched when I read this plea on her personal blog. “It’s my birthday this weekend, and nothing would please me more than if you’d cut a piece of cake and downloaded my book!” And according to her blog post, one of her fans is a literary superstar — Tom Perotta, who wrote the best-selling novels Little Children and The Leftovers (as well as “Election”, which was turned into a Matthew Broderick movie in 1999.) He describes her as “a one-woman counterculture, a teenaged socialist revolutionary turned Reagan-era sexual freedom fighter.”
But I think my all-time favorite story is about the time she turned up in some political coverage in Rolling Stone magazine. At one point, their reporter quipped off-handedly that Susie Bright “could not be accused of shutting up.”
Susie Bright liked the quote so much, she later made that the tagline for her personal blog!