How do you celebrate Mother’s Day? Is it a multigenerational event in your family or a day devoted to pampering? Is brunch with mimosas and fluffy muffins a given?
As a stepmom and an infertile woman, Mother’s Day is a bit melancholy for me. I love going to Saginaw and celebrating my mom, but I as much as I love being a stepmom, no holiday makes me quite so “other” as Mother’s Day. So I focus on dessert recipes, new spring salads, and gifts.
With that said, I will not be serving this gin fizz to my mom because she’s a Baptist teetotaler. Instead, I will be mudding strawberries with lemonade and ginger ale to make a mocktail for her. However if boozy brunches are a tradition in your family, I encourage you to either make this for mom or send the link to your husband as a not-so-subtle hint. If Mom isn’t a fan of gin, substitute St Germain (elderflower liqueur) for a sweeter, mellower cocktail.
In the earliest days of the pandemic, I had two obsessions. One was my dedication to finally becoming a runner, using the Couch to 5K app. The second was devouring thriller after thriller, ignoring all of the literary books in my To Be Read pile. Now, more than two years later, running isn’t a part of my life, but I still love the distraction of a good thriller, even though I have added more literary books back into my reading routine. (I try not to examine too closely what this reading preference says about me.)
These four books were all released between January 2022 and March 2022.
The Book of Cold Cases by Simone St. James
Claire Lake, Oregon may be small, but it’s a hot spot for crime. In 1977, the town was shocked by the Lady Killer Murders, but the police’s only suspect, wealthy heiress Beth Greer, was acquitted. In the late nineties, a child murderer came to town, but Shea Collins was the girl who got away and provided the police with the information to lock up her abductor. In 2017, Shea is a 29-year-old receptionist who also runs a successful true crime blog called the Book of Cold Cases. When Shea encounters Beth at her job, she asks Beth for an interview. To her surprise, Beth, who has a history of denying interview requests, says yes. But Shea is uncertain if Beth has picked her to clear her name, or if she has become a serial killer’s latest prey. I really enjoyed this. The characters were well developed, and the Pacific Northwest small town setting functioned almost as a character itself. There was a paranormal aspect that I didn’t love, as I think the same story could have been told without it, but that’s a minor complaint with an otherwise well-crafted thriller. I think this will be popular with both thriller readers and fans of true crime podcasts.
Reckless Girls by Rachel Hawkins
Lux needs an escape. She dropped out of college to care for her mother who was battling cancer, and after years of caregiving, she finds all of her peers have moved on without her, completing college, starting careers, while Lux has nothing but medical debt and a string of low paying jobs. When she meets Nico, who has a boat and a dream of sailing the world, Lux leaves her life behind to travel with him. At their first stop in Maui, they learn that Nico’s boat requires expensive repairs, delaying their plans until two college girls arrive with enough money to repair the boat and fund their travels if Nico and Lux take them to Meroe Island. When the four arrive in Meroe Island, an isolated island with a mysterious and violent history, they find a wealthy young couple already there. The six travelers become fast friends, partying with a seemingly endless supply of alcohol, until a seventh person arrives, disturbing their dynamic and bringing old secrets to the surface. Of these four books, Reckless Girls is the most escapist read, a definite beach vacation book. It is more disturbing (on a psychological level) than the average thriller, and it reminded me more of Lord of the Flies and The Beach than it did other 21st century thrillers. Reckless Girls makes a unique contribution to the genre.
A Flicker in the Dark by Stacy Willingham (debut)
When Chloe Davis was twelve, six teenage girls from her small Louisiana town went missing. While going through her parents’ closet one day, Chloe found trophies from the missing girls. With this evidence, her father was sent to prison for the crimes. Twenty years later, Chloe is successful on the surface–a psychologist who is engaged to be married–but the few people who know her closely know she is traumatized from the events of her past. As Chloe prepares for her wedding, teenage girls begin to go missing in her new city of Baton Rouge. Like many thrillers these days, this one deals with PTSD and the substance use disorders that frequently go hand in hand with trauma. I feel that drunk/high narrators are becoming a bit cliché in thrillers, but Willingham did an excellent job in conveying Chloe’s trauma and fear. When all of the characters begin to look untrustworthy to Chloe, they also look untrustworthy to the reader, who is also questioning what is real and what is performance. Most mystery readers will be able to work out whodunit, but the story unraveled with enough complexity and surprises that I wasn’t upset that I had worked out the solution, when that’s usually a deal breaker for me. While this is not groundbreaking for the genre, it’s a fun read and a solid debut.
The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley
When Jess loses her job in questionable circumstances, she leaves Brighton for Paris, as her brother Ben is the only person who can help her. But when Jess arrives, she finds her brother is not in his fancy Paris apartment and all of his posh neighbors are very reluctant to talk about him. Foley’s newest release is similar to her earlier works, The Guest List and The Hunting Party, in that there are multiple narrators and revelations are carefully distributed throughout the novel. While the two earlier thrillers had And There Were None vibes with their isolated settings, The Paris Apartment has gothic notes with gritty secrets, ominous architecture, and costume parties crossed with Rear Window voyeurism. The reviews have been very mixed among Foley fans. I was one of the ones who loved it. I was a bit unsure about it in the beginning and was bothered by the unlikeability of the characters, but then as secrets kept being revealed, I grew invested and appreciated the new and grittier direction of her work. I found it to be complex and enjoyable.
The Diamond Eye is a novel about the real life Soviet sniper, Lyudmila (Mila) Pavlichenko. When we first meet Mila, she is in her early twenties, raising her young son with the help of her parents. After a scene where Mila’s estranged husband takes their 5-year-old son without her knowledge and teaches him to shoot a rifle that the boy can barely hold, Mila resolves to learn to shoot a rifle with perfect accuracy and to be both mother and father to her son. It is then that she develops her motto of Don’t Miss.
A few years later, Mila is a fourth year history student working as a researcher in an Odessa library when Hitler invades Ukraine. Not wanting her son to live under a swastika, she enlists as a sniper in the Soviet army where her extensive shooting training comes in handy. Armed with patience, perfectionism, and calm under pressure, Mila earns the nickname Lady Death as she shoots over 300 enemy soldiers. While she is initially underestimated for being a small female, she earns the respect and friendship of the men around her, becomes a leader, and even falls in love.
The focus is mainly on Mila’s evolution as a soldier and on her bonds with her fellow soldiers, rather than on wartime gore, but the devastation of war is not glossed over. At one point, Mila meets a teenage girl who was raped by a group of Nazi soldiers. The girl asks Mila to kill them all, and each day, Mila returns to tell the girl how many Nazi soldiers she killed. In another scene, Mila teams up with an elderly Ukrainian ranger whose entire family had been murdered by Nazis, who then took up residence in his house. She helps him to get his revenge and he teaches her how to get through the woods undetected.
The first two-thirds of the novel take place on the battlefields of Ukraine, but in the final third of the book, we move to the US, where Mila is a part of a Soviet delegation tasked with securing the aid of President Roosevelt. At first, I was a bit disappointed when we moved from Ukraine to the US, but my disappointment did not last long, as this part of the story was as engaging as the war scenes. In the US, we see Mila develop a friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, while an American marksman aims to assassinate President Roosevelt and frame Mila. I adored the portrayal of the friendship between the lady sniper and the First Lady. Mila taught herself to be strong, but it is Eleanor Roosevelt who teaches her how to be kind to herself.
The Diamond Eye was my first Kate Quinn novel, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It would be a great book club selection as there is something for everyone: a strong female lead, a love story, well researched history, likable characters, and a page turning story.
Belgian chocolate, confiscated from the enemy, is the favorite luxury of Mila and her friends on the battlefield. Therefore, you should not feel the need to bake an elaborate dessert for your book club. Instead, let a really good chocolate take the center stage in your dessert board. Fill out your board with fruit, cookies, and any other simple sweet treats that you enjoy.
The Diamond Eye
This is a variation on a white cosmopolitan. Pretty yet strong, it suits Mila perfectly. To be honest, I used white cranberry peach juice here because, well, pandemic grocery shopping. It took me four grocery stores to find any white cranberry juice at all and all of the options were blended. And now that I have documented my struggle, I expect to find white cranberry juice everywhere: the gas station, local diners, hidden in the very back of my own pantry.
As Putin is a monster, this Ukrainian-American urges you to choose a Polish (or American) vodka to make this recipe.
Jenny Lawson is a blogger turned memoir writer, who is known for stories about her quirky Texan family, her random collections (taxidermied raccoons and creepy dolls, anyone?), her exposition of her most embarrassing moments, and most notably writing honestly about her struggle with mental illness. Broken (in the best possible way) is her third memoir and her fourth book.
Broken is everything that Lawson fans expect. In her somewhat stream of consciousness writing style, Lawson recounts the time the six times she lost her shoes while wearing them and the time she interrupted her husband Victor’s conference call with, “So I did what you told me to and returned that bag of stolen drugs and in exchange I got a big bag of dicks and that’s why I can never go back to the post office again and all of this is your fault” because as Jenny writes, “the art of mortification is what brings us all together.” Although, she sometimes uses these things in her defense to keep herself and other people apart; Jenny maintains a list of awkward things she has said to strangers to discourage her husband from insisting that she attend his work events.
It’s not all laughs. In “An Open Letter to My Health Insurance,” she carefully outlines the ways that insurance companies act as a barrier to good care, while also acknowledging that people with less privilege than her experience far worse; in “We Are Who We Are Until We Aren’t Anymore,” she discusses her family history of mental illness and dementia; in “The Things We Do to Quiet the Monsters,” she chronicles her experience with an experimental depression treatment; and in one spot of the book, she ponders what the dynamic of her marriage would be if her depression went fully into remission and she no longer had to rely on Victor quite so much.
Reading a Jenny Lawson book is like catching up with a friend you haven’t seen in a long time. Sometimes, you are laughing so hard that tears are rolling down your cheeks. (Seriously, don’t read this in public because there will be uncontrollable giggling.) At other times, it is so honest and vulnerable that you feel honored to be the recipient of her confessions. Like life, Broken is funny, beautiful, perfect, and sad all at once. While Broken, as well as all of Lawson’s other books, are must reads for anyone suffering from depression and anxiety, the audience extends far beyond the mental illness crowd. This is a great book for anyone who wants to read something both funny and thoughtful.
Cole Arthur Riley is the founder of Black Liturgies. If you are on Instagram, I strongly urge you to follow her at @blackliturgies. (She is also on Twitter and Facebook for anyone who doesn’t have Instagram.) I always find her words to be challenging, encouraging, and wise.
This Here Flesh is her first book, and it’s a collection of spiritual reflections, which are entwined with family stories. We meet Arthur Riley’s gramma, who endured both a traumatic childhood and an abusive marriage, to become a strong woman who guided her grandchildren with wisdom. Equally important is her father, a gentle and loving dad who taught her about dignity, but who is also a man with demons. And, of course, we meet Cole Arthur Riley herself who is as shy and reserved as she is intelligent and wise beyond her years.
The book is set up as a series of essays on different topics: dignity, place, wonder, calling, body, belonging, fear, lament, rage, justice, repair, rest, joy, memory, and liberation. As a whole, these writings explore finding God in all things, both the everyday and the extraordinary, and preserving your own worth in a world designed to attack your dignity and joy. I found Arthur Riley’s observations to be fresh, especially since she did not have a church upbringing. She did not grow up speaking Christianese or learning theology through well meant clichés, allowing her to see things that church kids don’t. She writes:
“I was sitting in McDonald’s with my first Bible-study leader when I told her I didn’t want Jesus in my heart. I was in my first year at the University of Pittsburgh and she, her last. She was gorgeous to me, even exposed to the fluorescent light rattling around us, but she spoke like the incarnation of a Hallmark card, which both aggravated and saddened me. I told her I wanted God out there doing something, nodding to the street beyond the glass window. Why confined to a heart?”
I was raised in white Christianity, and while the church I belong to now is quite different from the church where I grew up, I am of the opinion that there are some things that the white church does not do well. Lament is one. Looking to the Bible for a true understanding of justice is another. The Black church hasn’t had the luxury of taking these things lightly and instead these are essentials of faith. On lament, Arthur Riley writes:
“I am most disillusioned with the Christian faith when in the presence of a Christian who refuses to name the traumas of the world. I am suspicious of anyone who can observe colonization, genocide, and decay in the world and not be stirred to lament in some way. For all the goodness of God, my ancestors were still abducted from their homes, raped, and enslaved. I will not be rushed out of my sorrow for it . . . I shouldn’t need to recite a litany of wounds and injustices and decay in order to justify my sadness. In lament, our task is never to convince someone of the brokenness of the world; it is to convince them of the world’s worth in the first place. True lament is not born from that trite sentiment that the world is bad but rather from a deep conviction that it is worthy of goodness.”
This is not a breezy read you finish in a couple of days. You linger over it because each chapter leaves you with too many thoughts to simply move forward. For me, I would read a chapter either first thing in the morning or last thing at night. And when you finish it, you will want to pass it on your friends and your sisters because it is simply too good to keep to yourself. This is easily the best book I have read so far in 2022, and I suspect when we reach the end of the year, it will still be the best book I have read all year. It left me grateful to Cole Arthur Riley for sharing her thoughts, her beliefs, and her stories.
After dinner drinks are the best. From rich glasses of port to dessert liqueurs to coffee drinks, I love them all. And when you are too old to pub crawl on Saint Patrick’s Day, this is the perfect beverage.
I don’t know much about my great-grandmother and great-grandfather in Ukraine. I knew my maternal grandparents, who lived in Ukraine in their youth, then emigrated to Paraguay and many years later to the U.S. But when I try to go back farther than my grandparents, the only thing I can say with any confidence is that I am the descendent of Eastern European farmers. Farmers from Ukraine on my mom’s side and farmers from Belarus on my dad’s.
Family names and family stories have not been passed down to me. My parents did not know their own grandparents, as they were both raised in Paraguay, while my great-grandparents remained in what would become Soviet territory after the Second World War. At the time when both sets of my grandparents emigrated, it was not yet Soviet land. All of their documentation declared them to be Polish, even though no one in the family considered themselves to be Polish.
Ukraine as a conquered land is an old story, but that never makes it less terrible. We are not Russians; we are not Poles; we are Ukrainians. We have our own language, culture, etc. Of the people taking refuge or walking to Poland or taking up arms against Russian invaders, I don’t know any of them, but some of them might be my second or third cousins. But I am comfortable in my own home, consumed by my own problems, as I was saved from this predicament due to the actions of the generations that came before me.
I don’t know much about my ancestry, but what I know is the food. My connection to my ancestors and to modern day distant relatives is in what I eat, the food I was raised on. This is my comfort food, and my mom’s, and I’m sure it was my grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s comfort food. If you try, I am sure it will become your comfort food, even if you aren’t Ukrainian.
*16 oz cottage cheese
*1 package farmer cheese (mine was 0.64 lb)
*5 cups sifted flour
*2 teaspoons salt
*1 ⅔ cups water
*¼ cup sour cream
*Melted butter to keep vareniki from sticking together
Combine all ingredients for the cheese filling in a medium bowl. Set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together egg and sour cream until well combined, then whisk in the water.
Add in the flour and salt and knead until it is the right consistency. If it seems too sticky, add some flour. If too dry, add more water. Divide the dough into 3 parts.
Fill a large pot with water and salt and bring to a boil.
While your water is heating, roll out your dough on a well floured surface until it is 1/8" thick.
Using either a cookie cutter or an upside down coffee mug, cut the dough into circles.
Add a spoonful of filling in the center of each circle. Carefully fold in half and pinch to seal the vareniki shut. (My mom’s tip: Get your fingers damp with water if the vareniki are not sealing properly.)
Once your water is boiling, drop your first batch of vareniki (6 to 10 vareniki, depending on size) into the water.
Boil the vareniki until they float to the top, then remove from the water with a slotted spoon and brush with melted butter.
What is your go-to drink? If I’m not having wine, I prefer a whiskey based cocktail, like a Manhattan. Manhattans and Old Fashioneds are not for everyone, so here is a friendlier, sunnier take on a bourbon cocktail. Limoncello, a lemon liqueur from the Amalfi Coast, makes everything taste like summer, and here it mellows the flavor of the bourbon. Add some spicy ginger beer and a dash of orange bitters for balance, and it’s pretty much perfect.
An American on the Amalfi Coast
1 oz bourbon
1 oz limoncello
1 dash orange bitters
Combine bourbon, limoncello, and bitters in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake until well incorporated.
Strain into a short tumbler full of ice.
Top with ginger beer and garnish with a lemon slice.