Bookseller Nina Hill has developed a life and a schedule that suits her and her comfort zone perfectly. She has a trivia team, several book clubs, and a cat named Phil. She gets out enough to keep from being lonely, but the environment is controlled enough to keep her anxiety from being triggered. During an otherwise normal workday, Nina learns that her nomadic mother lied about not knowing who Nina’s father was. A lawyer arrives at the bookstore to inform Nina that her wealthy father has passed away and she has a large family scattered throughout the LA area. An expert at keeping people at bay, Nina now has to deal with relatives dropping into her life, sometimes invited and sometimes not. Also, the attractive leader of a rival trivia league has decided now would be a good time for him to get to know Nina.
Nina is a delightful main character. I would describe her as a cross between Anne Shirley and Bridget Jones. Yes, a strange combo, I know. She resembles Bridget in her whimsical self improvement plans. (“Drink more water and less wine,” Nina might journal, while pouring herself a second glass of wine.) However, Nina’s intelligence and depth are what keeps this from being too similar to a late ‘90s, early ‘00s chick lit novel. She’s thoughtful and dreamy and her mind is always going to surprising places. She’s a modern day Anne Shirley, filled with romantic longings for what life should be, yet sharp enough to see life exactly as it is.
The Bookish Life of Nina Hill is a perfect choice if you want something page turning that will make you giggle but also want a book that is thoughtful. It will appeal to readers who enjoyed Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and A Man Called Ove. It deals with isolation, mental health, and overcoming fear of rejection in a way that is humorous and sensitive. Highly recommended.
This recipe was inspired by a port old fashioned I had in Columbus (possibly Dublin, OH?) when I was in Ohio visiting my fabulous cousins. I wish I remembered the name of the restaurant, which was cute and had delicious food. This is a great recipe for an Old Fashioned (or Manhattan) drinker who wants a more festive variation for the holidays. Or for someone who wants to ease into drinking whiskey.
I’m a big believer in customizing recipes, even cocktail recipes, to individual taste. If you are not accustomed to drinking whiskey, you might want to do 2 oz of port and 1 oz whiskey, while a regular whiskey drinker might do the reverse. For most people, I think equal parts whiskey and port will be ideal.
Christmas and murder really shouldn’t go together. It’s like peanut butter and pickles or something else that should never, ever be combined. But it also makes sense. Family gatherings are where everyone knows a bit too much about each other, and there are memories of the deepest loyalties and deepest betrayals. All of these mysteries deal with family gatherings gone wrong. And each one is delightful. (I came across a few that weren’t delightful; they did not make the list.)
Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie
Simeon Lee gathers his mostly estranged family for Christmas. Hoping the verbally and emotionally abusive patriarch has grown sentimental in his old age, they gather, only to find that the old man is baiting them to fight about the will. When Simeon is found dead, there is no shortage of suspects and Hercule Poirot must determine if the motivation was money or hatred. As a mystery, this is a 10/10 with twists, turns, and family drama. As a Christmas story, it isn’t the most festive on the list.
Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas by Stephanie Barron
Part of a mystery series featuring Jane Austen as an amateur sleuth, Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas follows Jane and the Austen family as they celebrate the Christmas season at an estate named the Vyne. After Jane’s first evening at the Vyne, one of her fellow guests leaves early, as he is on his way to deliver the recently signed Treaty of Ghent. However, his horse immediately returns without him and the remaining guests find the man murdered and the treaty missing. Jane can only conclude that one of their party is a murderer. This is a book intended for readers who are Regency lovers first and cozy mystery lovers second.
The Mistletoe Murder by PD James
This short story collection was the best surprise of this reading list. Being a fan of complicated mysteries with multiple subplots and fields of red herrings, I wasn’t so sure about reading mysteries in short story form. I was surprised at how satisfying these stories were and just how much James was able to do with both character and plot twists in such a short space. The title story was the best of the group and the ending was just so, so perfect. While these were all originally published as Christmas stories, only two felt truly Christmassy to me and the two others . . . mildly wintry. In spite of this, this collection is strongly recommended.
A Christmas Party (Envious Casca) by Georgette Heyer
Two elderly brothers, one a curmudgeon and the other a jolly fool, live together in an English manor. When one brother decides to invite the whole family to celebrate Christmas, it can only end in murder. Originally, I was going to claim The Mistletoe Murder as my favorite of the bunch. That was until I read this book. I didn’t go in with great expectations. Georgette Heyer was an author of Regency era novels, but she also published a few mystery novels, of which Envious Casca (later named A Christmas Party is one). I think I was expecting this one to be silly, but I was immediately drawn in. The humor and characterization was very Jane Austen, while the plot and twists were all Agatha Christie. I am definitely reading more of Georgette Heyer, and I plan to get this book trending on Twitter with #Won’tAnyoneConsiderNatsLumbago? and #GiveMaudHerBookBackYouBarbarians. (Join me on Twitter to assist my crusade!)
You know that untrustworthy friend who drops an entire stick of butter (or two if it’s a large batch) in the mashed potatoes when you are not looking?
It’s me. Hi. I’m the problem. It’s me.
Or I was.
Luckily for my arteries and yours, I found a super secret ingredient that will allow the butter to be cut in half, while keeping all the flavor and adding a brand new flavor that will make people say, “That’s delicious! What is it?”
It’s miso butter shallots.
Yes, it sounds weird. I got the idea from a pizza. (Please don’t stop reading. I wouldn’t expect a story about mashed potatoes to begin with pizza either, but I promise no mozzarella or tomato sauce will be added to your Thanksgiving potatoes.) I made Half Baked Harvest’sMushroom Pizza with Miso Butter Shallots from this cookbook, and all I wanted to eat was the miso butter shallots, which is saying something given that mushroom pizza is my favorite food group. The savory flavor was perfect, and I kept wondering what other foods could benefit from it. Orzo? Mac & cheese? Mashed potatoes?
Once the idea was in my head, I began Googling to see if other people also use miso and random alliums in their potatoes. I found that miso butter garlic potatoes is not unheard of, and even featured in Bon Appetit’s Thanksgiving menu last year.
So I bring you miso butter shallot mashed potatoes. This recipe is for 2 lbs of potatoes, but if you are feeding a crowd, you’ll need to double or triple this. Since I am a lazy person, I used new potatoes, so no peeling would be needed. All the nutrients are in the peels, right?
Top Secret Mashed Potatoes
Miso can be tricky to find for those in the Midwest and in small towns. As a Michigander, the only store where I am reliably able to find it is Fresh Thyme, where it keeps company with the tofu and the kimchi in the refrigerated section. If your grocery store fails you, try Amazon.
2 lbs potatoes
Half a stick (4 tablespoons) butter
2 to 3 shallots sliced thinly
2 garlic cloves
¼ cup white miso paste
¾ cup milk (plus more, if needed)
Bring potatoes to a boil in a pot of salted water.
2. While the potatoes are cooking, melt butter in a skillet. Once melted, reduce heat to medium low and add the shallots, garlic, and miso. Do not salt at this point. The miso is already salty. These will caramelize while the potatoes are cooking. If needed, reduce heat to low.
3. Once the potatoes are fork tender, drain the potatoes and return to the pot along with the miso butter shallot mixture and milk. Mash with a potato masher or with an electric mixer, adding more milk if needed. Taste to check salt levels. If you salted your potato cooking water well, you likely won’t need to add any salt.
There are many Instagram worthy pies out there. As a beige wonder, this is not one of them. However, the taste makes up for whatever its appearance lacks. This is a pie my mom used to make, and it was a favorite of mine and of my cousins’. However, with time and fewer large family Thanksgiving dinners, it was forgotten. By that, I mean my mom forgot about the pie. I kept reminding her it was a perfect Thanksgiving pie, only to get blank looks from her because my mother has made too many pie recipes in her life to remember all of them.
Last year over either Thanksgiving or Christmas, I started going through my mom’s loose recipes: things cut out of magazines or printed on butter boxes. All of those gems that mock the KonMari organization method with their nonstandard sizes and formats.
And I found the pie.
And a surprise. It turns out my favorite Thanksgiving pie is a product of the fat-phobic nineties. One of its ingredients is something called Land O’Lakes lean cream, which I am guessing is probably some discontinued fat free sour cream, as I recall my mom using sour cream in this recipe. There has been some tweaking, as my first version did not turn out quite right, but there is a picture of the original at the very bottom of this post if you want to see it.
Apple Custard Pie
You don’t need eagle eyes to see the recipe has an oat crumble trust, while my photo does not. Let’s just say the oat crumble was the best part of my first attempt.
Butter pie crust (Recipe below. Or use a store bought pie crust. This blog is a no judgment zone.)
3 cups chopped apples
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 cup sugar
8 oz sour cream
3 egg yolks, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons butter, melted
¼ old fashioned oats
¼ cup brown sugar
Preheat oven to 375. In a medium bowl, mix chopped apples with a tablespoon of cornstarch. In a large bowl, combine sugar, sour cream, egg yolks, cinnamon, lemon juice, and vanilla. Fold in apples.
Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface into a 12-inch circle. Transfer to a 9-inch pie pan. Tuck the overhang under and crimp the edge with a fork or flute it between your thumb and index finger. Pour the filling into the crust.
In a small bowl, combine melted butter, oats, and brown sugar. Crumble over pie. Add a pie shield to keep the crust from burning.
Bake for 45 to 50 minutes or until filling is set. Cool completely before serving.
Butter Pie Crust
This is for a single crust pie.
¾ cup whole-wheat pastry flour
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon sugar
8 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
3 to 4 tablespoons ice water
Mix pastry flour, all-purpose flour and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a large bowl. Mix the butter into the flour mixture, using either your hands or a food processor until your butter cubes are butter flakes. Add water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough is evenly moist (but not wet) and is just starting to clump together. Do not overmix. Pat the dough into a 5-inch disk. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 1 hour.
Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface into a 12-inch circle. Transfer to a 9-inch pie pan. Tuck the overhang under and crimp the edge with a fork or flute it between your thumb and index finger. Pour the filling into the crust.
In 1978, Violet and Eric Hildreth are being raised by their grandmother, the renowned psychiatrist, Dr. Helen Hildreth. The children are self sufficient and home schooled and mostly left to pursue their own interests. And their interest is monsters. Vi and Eric are the only two members of the Monster Club, which is writing its own survival guide. “There are two main types of monsters,” they write. The first know they are monsters and the second have no idea and pass as human. Violet and Eric are distracted from their usual summer schedule of monster hunting, library trips, and sneaking into the local drive-in when Gran brings home a girl. A girl who wears a hat to hide scars on her head and who Gran tells them to treat as a sister.
In 2019, Lizzy Shelley has left her childhood name and identity behind, having no desire to be associated with the most famous true crime story in Vermont, but she has never lost her interest in monsters. In middle age, she is a successful monster hunter, reality TV star, and podcast host. She lives in her van, pursuing tips about monsters all over the continental US, minus Vermont. One particular monster plagues her. A monster that abducts young girls during a full moon. A monster she suspects to be the sister she hasn’t seen in decades.
The Children on the Hill was my favorite read of Spooky Season 2022. It’s a bit hard to classify, being a blend of gothic, suspense, and horror. Scaredy cats like me don’t need to avoid this book though. While Children on the Hill could be classified as horror, it’s an old fashioned kind of horror like Frankenstein or Dracula, and there are nods to both of those novels here. This novel is classic in every way from the tension between madness and the supernatural, and the warning against scientific progress at the expense of human morals. Much like in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the primary question here is, “What is a monster?”
Like with every good suspense novel, there are twists even when you think all has been revealed. Fans of mysteries, horror, and both classic and modern gothics will find Jennifer McMahon’s latest novel to be irresistible.
Fall French 77: A cocktail inspired by The Children on the Hill
In The Children on the Hill, Gran loves gin. So much so that she distills her own, with the same patience she gives to her scientific discoveries. So naturally a gin drink would be ideal to accompany this book, so I created an autumn variation on the classic French 77.
Circe is an outsider among gods, goddesses, and minor deities. Her voice, unlike that of any other immortal, sets her apart, as does her witchery. The gods decree that Circe be exiled to the island of Aiaia for the rest of her immortal life. On her beautiful and lonely island, Circe learns her craft, interrupted by the occasional mortal or immortal visitor. When Odysseus’s ship lands on her island, everything changes for Circe. The most literary book on this list, Circe is a myth beautifully retold. Miller fleshes out a minor character in mythology, imagining a powerful, clever, and passionate woman who made her own way when she proved different from any other mortal or immortal to walk the earth.
The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell (historical)
In 1865, Elsie Bainbridge, recently widowed after her husband’s sudden death, inherits her late husband’s English manor. The Elizabethan home was once a grand estate, but by Elsie’s day, it is in a state of decay. Elsie’s new home contains silent companions, wooden cut outs that resemble people. At first, she is merely spooked by the silent companions, but she soon suspects that they can move of their own accord. Elsie’s story is intertwined with that of Anne Bainbridge, the lady of the manor in the 1600s, who turned to witchcraft to conceive a child. Anne’s child, a mute girl named Hetta, is misunderstood in Anne’s view and evil in the eyes of others. This one is a must read for all fans of Gothic literature, as it contains creepy English estates, hints of both madness and the supernatural, and Victorian asylums. As a note, it is quite creepy and as close to horror as I, a total scaredy cat, am willing to read.
The Once and Future Witches by Alix E Harrow
Seven years earlier, the Eastwood sisters–bookish Beatrice Belladonna, beautiful Agnes Amaranth, and impulsive James Juniper–are separated, and each sister blames her other sisters for the betrayal. In 1893, Juniper heads to New Salem when fleeing the law. There, she is reunited with her sisters and they awaken dormant magic. An alternate history where Salem village was burned to the ground with the witchcraft trials and a new town–New Salem the Sinless City–was founded, The Once and Future Witches tells the story of witches and witch hunters, suffragists, and workers’ rights movements, blended with folklore. This was possibly my favorite book on this list. As a history nerd, I enjoyed spotting fictionalized versions of real historical figures and events, and I appreciated the intersectional feminism of the story.
Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman
Sally and Gillian Owens were shaped by three forces: the witchy aunts who raised them in a small Massachusetts town, the isolation of going to school in a town where they were also believed to be witches, and cautionary tale of the drug store girl, who acquired a love potion from the aunts, only to regret her decision once she was a married woman with a husband who followed her everywhere. Sally grew up cautious while Gillian grew up wild, but the Owens sisters agreed on two things: to avoid magic and love all of their days. Gillian left town as soon as she became an adult, to chase men that she didn’t love. Sally forgot all about the warning of the drug store girl and devoted herself to creating a family. When the sisters are in their thirties, Gillian shows up at Sally’s house with her dead boyfriend in the car, and Jimmy’s unnatural death proves to be the one problem they cannot solve without magic. In this beautifully written novel, Hoffman has created a world where life and love are mysteries even to witches.
What Should Be Wild by Julia Fine
Maisie is not permitted to touch or be touched by anything living. If she touches a living thing, whether it is a leaf or an animal, it will die instantly. If she touches a dead thing, it comes back to life. She grows up in her ancestral home, raised by her father, Peter, and their housekeeper, Mrs. Blott, governed by an endless list of rules. As she has not been permitted to interact with others, she assumes her condition is part of being a child and that when she’s an adult, she too will be able to touch things without consequence. It is not until she spies, outside the gates of her home, a line of schoolchildren holding hands while walking that she realizes she is alone in her condition. After the death of Mrs. Blott and the disappearance of Peter, Maisie goes searching for both her father and the story of the woods behind her home, where women in her family have gone missing for centuries. A boy and a young man join her in her quest, and Maisie is thrilled to experience male interest for the first time, but only one of them is trustworthy.
The Witches of New York by Ami McKay (historical)
When Beatrice Dunn arrives in New York City in 1880, she seeks employment at a mysterious tea shop. The tea shop is a favorite with society ladies who dabble in spiritualism, but Beatrice quickly learns that the owners, Adelaide and Eleanor, have real magic and so does she. As Beatrice begins to explore her powers, religious zealots wage an anti-magic campaign that threatens the tea shop. Throughout Manhattan, women rumored to have magical powers are going missing. When Beatrice becomes one of the missing, Eleanor and Adelaide must go in search of their protégé. McKay’s portrayal of late 19th century New York is compelling and original, and the story is an enjoyable fall read. Content warning: If you will be bothered by a negative portrayal of organized religion, skip this one. Every professing Christian in this novel is a jerk and one is a serial killer.
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (1st of the All Souls Trilogy)
Diana Bishop, eager historian and reluctant witch, orders a rare alchemical book from Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, not knowing that this book is coveted by the three supernatural races – witches, vampires, and daemons – or that the book had been missing over a century until she requested it. Once Diana, a hereditary but non-practicing witch, unlocks the magic of the text, she’s being pursued by supernatural beings, befriending a vampire, and learning about the mysterious death of her parents. The trilogy has many things going for it: a dark academia vibe, a love story, and a whimsical supernatural world that is as compelling as Harry Potter’s. Its primary weakness is a fairly generic vampire hero. Matthew is wealthy, well-dressed, patriarchal, possessive, and just not that interesting. In spite of him, this is a very enjoyable series.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
A shy and friendless young boy meets Lettie Hempstock, the girl at the end of the lane, after a local tragedy and she becomes his first friend. Like him, Lettie is a solitary child without friends her own age and a little strange. She refers to the pond at the end of the lane as her ocean, and the boy is unsure of whether she believes the pond to be the ocean or if it is simply make believe. Unlike the boy, Lettie is well loved at home, and the narrator is drawn to the Hempstock house, where everyone is kind to him. The boy begins seeing magic around him, in the practices of the Hempstock women and in strange events around town. When the boy begins to suspect that his new nanny is actually a supernatural being, and his family won’t believe him, he turns to his new friends for help. This was my first time reading Neil Gaiman, and it reminded me a little of the Roald Dahl books of my childhood, but with more grown up content. A great read if you enjoy child narrators and fantasy.
Dark and Shallow Lies by Ginny Myers Sain (YA mystery)
La Cachette, Louisiana is an island so isolated there is no cell service or internet access. The residents make their living from the tourist trade, marketing themselves as the Psychic Capital of the World, selling psychic readings, crystals, and love potions. Seventeen years ago in La Cachette, ten children were born in a single summer, a first for an island with only 100 full time residents. They call themselves the Summer Children. Grey, one of the Summer Children, has only spent her summers in La Cachette since the death of her mother nine years before. A few months before Grey returns to the island for her seventeenth summer, her best friend, Elora, goes missing. Grey returns determined to learn what happened to Elora, only to find that no one in a town of psychics seems to have any insight as to what happened the night her friend went missing. As Grey begins to dig, she starts confronting all of La Cachette’s secrets, such as the death of the twins, Ember and Orli, thirteen years earlier and the legend of the local bogeyman, Dempsey Fontenot.
Beautiful Creatures (YA series) by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl (YA)
Gatlin, South Carolina is a town of churches, debutantes, and Civil War nostalgia. Experience a tragedy and everyone will bring you a casserole. Step outside the prescribed order and become an outcast. High school student Ethan Wate, who is mourning his mother’s death, cannot wait to leave Gatlin and no longer be known as the boy without a mama. When a new girl, Lena Duchannes, arrives in town, Ethan recognizes her as the girl who has been haunting his dreams. The two lonely teens are drawn to each other, and Ethan is drawn outside ordinary Gatlin and into a new world of the supernatural. Lena comes from a long line of Casters, and Ethan has no idea about the family curse that will change her upon her sixteenth birthday. With interesting main characters and excellent writing, the series is haunting and atmospheric and–most unfortunately–problematic. The books would have benefitted from a Black editor or beta reader to prevent racial stereotypes that shouldn’t have made their way into print in the 21st century. Which is sad because the books are otherwise gorgeous Southern gothics.
The Secret Circle (trilogy) by LJ Smith (YA)
When Cassie Blake moves from California to her mother’s childhood hometown of New Salem, Massachusetts, Cassie finds that the teens who live on her street somehow run the high school. Some are kind and idealistic while others are bullies, but none of them have ever been held accountable for their actions. Fascinated by these teens, Cassie becomes a member of their group, only to learn that she–and the rest of the children of Crowhaven Road–are the last in a long line of witches. In full disclosure, this is 100% a comfort read from my adolescence and as ‘90s YA as you can possibly get (supernatural love triangles!). In general, supernatural stories that are rooted in the Salem witchcraft trials can go very wrong in that they can minimize both what happened to perfectly innocent people and lessons that should be learned from these events. The Secret Circle somehow manages to build off the real history without minimizing the tragedy of what actually occurred. On the less positive side, no one talked about consent in the ‘90s, when this trilogy was written, and it shows here in the treatment of love spells.
Harry Potter (MG series) by JK Rowling
What can be said about Harry Potter that hasn’t already been said? Unless you have been living under a rock since the late nineties (and if yes, I’m so sorry, climate change has made weather bonkers since then and current events are even worse, so return to your rock asap), you know the Harry Potter series is about a young boy who learns he is a wizard and grows up to battle the most evil wizard of his age. Drawing from mythology, Arthurian legend, and historical events, Harry’s story is an epic tale. Whether you love Harry Potter or love to hate it, JK Rowling has created a magical world that lives on in the modern imagination. I cannot say enough good things about the series, even though I have beef with Rowling’s stance on trans rights.
What kind of jobs did you have while attending school? Did you sell graphic tees to teenagers at Hot Topic? Or don polo shirts and khakis to sell family plans at the Sprint store? Or pour endless cups of coffee at iHop?
When I was in grad school, I waited tables. I worked for a truly terrible steakhouse chain that I suspect (hope?) is now out of business. We were always running out of clean glasses, our job performance was measured by how many girly fruity drinks we sold to a clientele that just wanted beer, and according to rumor, my general manager went to prison a couple months after I left. For a different job, I donned a blue dirndl, which made me look like Snow White, to serve chicken in Frankenmuth, Michigan. One day after work, I went through a fast food drive through and the lady at the window immediately burst into giggles upon seeing my dirndl and said, “Where do you work??!!” So yes, I had the type of job that made fast food workers grateful they weren’t me.
But my favorite restaurant I worked at was called Guido’s. Sadly, it no longer exists, but they had the best pizzas and pastas in Saginaw. The owner was awesome and every business on the block was friendly and would just walk through each other’s back doors to say hi.
One of my favorite things at Guido’s (I had about half a dozen favorites) was a spaghetti that had sauteed mushrooms and goat cheese. This isn’t The Recipe, as I have no idea what was in the pasta sauce, but it’s inspired by it.
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 small onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 pinch of red pepper flakes
salt and pepper
1 32-oz can of tomatoes
1 bay leaf
10 oz mushrooms, sliced
1 16-oz package of spaghetti
6 oz goat cheese, cut into rounds
Optional: shredded basil to top
Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, celery, carrot, red pepper flakes, and salt and saute for approximately 12 minutes.
Add tomatoes, bay leaf, and additional salt. Simmer uncovered over low heat for approximately one hour.
While the marinara is simmering, preheat the oven to 375. Toss mushrooms with remaining olive oil and salt and pepper. Add mushrooms in a single layer on a sheet pan and roast for 30 minutes, stirring the mushrooms once after 15 minutes.
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Cook spaghetti according to package directions. Reserve a half cup of cooking water and then drain pasta.
Add the spaghetti and roasted mushrooms to the marinara sauce and stir until the pasta is evenly coated. Add reserved cooking water, if needed. Add freshly cracked black pepper.
Serve with rounds of goat cheese and (optional) shredded basil.
I’m fully in fall recipe testing mode here. Some of it–like this fig old fashioned–is delicious and while others need tweaking. (We won’t speak of the muffins I attempted this week. Too many “healthy swaps” for an edible muffin.)
I have decided that this is what we grown ladies need to drink while watching Hocus Pocus 2. The Sanderson sisters would approve. I have no idea what I’m having for dinner tonight, but I know what I am drinking. The sisters would approve of that too.
Cinnamon Fig Old Fashioned
For cinnamon fig simple syrup: ⅓ cup sugar, 1 tablespoon fig preserves, 1 cinnamon stick
2 oz rye whiskey or bourbon
Dash of orange bitters
Half a fresh fig
Cinnamon-sugar blend for rim (optional)
To make the cinnamon fig simple syrup, combine a half cup water, ⅓ cup sugar, 1 tablespoon fig preserves, and one cinnamon stick in a small saucepan. Heat until the sugar and fig preserves are fully dissolved. Let cool. Store in a mason jar in the fridge for up to a week. This will make at least four old fashioneds.
In a cocktail shaker full of ice, combine 2 oz whiskey, 1 oz of cinnamon fig simple syrup, and a dash of orange bitters. Shake vigorously.
Optional step for cinnamon sugar rim: Rub the cut side of a rocks glass and then roll the rim in a cinnamon sugar blend.
Add ice to the glass, pour the contents of the shaker into the glass, and garnish with the fig half.
Beatrice Darker, known as Nana to her family, is the matriarch of the Darker clan. She is a successful children’s author and illustrator. Her family has depended on her for babysitting services and to stay financially afloat. While Nana is practical in most things, a fortune teller once told her she would die at the age of eighty and she has always believed it.
On October 30th, the eve of Nana’s 80th birthday, she gathers her entire family to celebrate at her isolated island home. The family includes: Frank Darker, Nana’s son, whose first love is music and whose first inconvenience is the family he created with his ex-wife, Nancy. Nancy Darker, a glamorous ex-housewife, who loves gardening, beautiful things, and her middle child. Rose, the oldest of Nana’s three granddaughters, who is an intelligent but isolated veterinarian who prefers animals to people. Lily, a single mother and the vain beauty of the family, is the middle granddaughter. Daisy, the youngest granddaughter and the narrator, has been sickly her entire life and is the inspiration behind Nana’s most successful book, Daisy Darker’s Little Secret. Trixie, Nana’s great-granddaughter and Lily’s daughter, is the only child in the family and a studious girl who dresses only in pink. Finally, Conor, a neighbor who grew up with the three Darker girls, makes up the final guest of the birthday party.
As the tide cuts off the island from the rest of the world, Nana serves an elaborate meal. The Darker family, who does not often choose to spend time together, makes awkward small talk until the conversation turns to murder. Each family member reveals how they would commit the perfect murder. The shared dark humor is only temporary, and the Darker family soon returns to their usual agenda of personal attacks, with new fuel from recently discovered family home videos. Just after midnight, after everyone is in bed, fifteen-year-old Trixie goes downstairs to find Nana dead on the kitchen floor and a menacing poem written on the kitchen’s blackboard wall. Soon after, the members of the Darker family begin to die, one by one.
Much like Lucy Foley’s brilliant thriller The Guest List,Daisy Darker has serious And Then There Were None vibes, maintaining a delicate balance between clever modern twists and nods to the original inspiration. Daisy, a naive and semi-reliable narrator, is the perfect choice to tell a complicated story. While I did predict a handful of the twists, I was also surprised by many, and I loved how the story came together. Feeney’s writing is suspenseful, and it is the type of story where you get nervous every time a door opens or a noise is heard. The characters, a mix of likeable and unlikeable, are all distinct and compelling. It was my first Alice Feeney book, but it won’t be my last.
On the whole, it is a perfect read for spooky season and would make an ideal book club selection for October.
Book Club Menu
On Halloween Eve, Nana prepares an elaborate and whimsical feast for her family:
“Dinner is a feast–roast chicken, potatoes, Yorkshire puddings, and lashings of gravy. But the gravy is hot chocolate sauce, because Nana thinks everything should be a sweet treat at Halloween. The carrots are loaded in sugar; the puddings are really marshmallows; there are Smarties mixed in with the peas, and popping candy on the potatoes. What looks like melted bread sauce is actually melted vanilla ice cream. The food is both surprising and surprisingly good.” p. 34, U.S. edition
After this candied roast chicken meal, which is served with lots of white wine, Nana brings out a homemade chocolate cake and champagne.
We’re going to let Nana inspire our book club menus, if in a somewhat less sugary way. We’ll pass on the chocolate gravy and marshmallowy Yorkshire pudding for a more traditional roast chicken meal and opt for a brownie with Halloween candy baked in instead of chocolate birthday cake. (Although if you wanted to write “Happy Birthday, Nana!” on a chocolate cake instead of baking a brownie, that would be memorable.)
Roasted Lemon Thyme Chicken with Potatoes (recipe below)
Apple Kale Salad with Candied Almonds (recipe below)
Halloween Brownies (details below)
Alcoholic Beverage: Both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are classic pairings for roast chicken
Non-Alcoholic Beverage: Warmed cider with mulling spices
Lemon Thyme Roast Chicken with Potatoes
Lemon Thyme Roast Chicken with Potatoes
Roasting a whole chicken is surprisingly easy, and your house will smell amazing while it is roasting. You just need to get past handling a raw bird. Feel free to use a smaller amount of dried thyme if you don't have fresh.
Zest of half a lemon
1 tablespoon salt, plus extra
1/2 teaspoon pepper, plus extra
Fresh thyme, 4 to 5 sprigs
Whole chicken, 4 to 5 lbs
Olive oil (approximately 2 tablespoons)
4 cloves garlic
1 lb small potatoes, cut into small pieces
Preheat the oven to 425.
In a small bowl, combine the salt, pepper, lemon zest, and leaves from 2 sprigs of thyme. (You will use the rest of the thyme later.)
Remove the giblets from the chicken. (You can reserve them for another use.) Rinse chicken and pat dry.
In a roasting pan, coat the chicken with olive oil and then rub the seasoning all over the bird and in the cavity. Fill the cavity with the lemon half, garlic cloves, and 2 to 3 sprigs of thyme.
Add the potatoes to the roasting pan around the chicken. Add salt and pepper.
Optional: tie the chicken legs together with twine.
Roast for 1.5 hours, until it is an absolute minimum of 165. Baste the chicken with its juices halfway through the process.
Allow to rest for 20 minutes before carving. This step is essential. Do not skip.
In a cold skillet, combine raw almonds, sugar, and cinnamon. Turn heat to medium. Once the sugar begins to melt, stir constantly until the sugar is fully melted and coating the almonds. Transfer the almonds to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Let cool.
In a large bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, tahini, maple syrup, and olive oil to make the salad dressing. Add salt and pepper.
Add the kale to the bowl and mix until all of the kale is coated in the dressing.
Top with apple slices, feta crumbles, and approximately half of the candied almonds.
This isn’t so much a recipe as it is a suggestion on how to make boxed brownies festive for spooky season. As written, this is baked in a pie dish and cut into 8 wedges. Therefore, you’ll want to find a box mix meant for an 8x8 dish. Both Ghiradelli and Trader Joe’s brownie mixes are for that size. If all you have is a brownie mix for an 8x13 dish, obviously skip the pie dish and use the correct size baking pan and use more peanut butter cups.
1 box brownie mix, plus ingredients to make it as directed
3 oz Reese’s Pieces (King size bag)
Miniature peanut butter cups (about 15 PB cups)
Spray a pie dish with nonstick spray and set aside. Make the brownie mix as directed on the box and fold in the Reese’s Pieces just before adding the mix to the pie dish. Bake according to the box directions for an 8x8 baking dish. Immediately after taking the brownies out of the oven, press the peanut butter cups into the warm brownie. Let cool fully before serving. If desired, serve with vanilla ice cream.