Daisy Darker by Alice Feeney: book review & book club menu

Daisy Darker by Alice Feeney: book review & book club menu

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

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.

Ingredients

  • 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)
  • Lemon half
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1 lb small potatoes, cut into small pieces

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 425.
  2. 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.)
  3. Remove the giblets from the chicken. (You can reserve them for another use.) Rinse chicken and pat dry.
  4. 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.
  5. Add the potatoes to the roasting pan around the chicken. Add salt and pepper.
  6. Optional: tie the chicken legs together with twine.
  7. Roast for 1.5 hours, until it is an absolute minimum of 165. Baste the chicken with its juices halfway through the process.
  8. Allow to rest for 20 minutes before carving. This step is essential. Do not skip.

Apple Kale Salad with Candied Almonds

apple kale salad, candied almonds

Apple Kale Salad with Candied Almonds

Ingredients

  • ½ cup sliced raw almonds
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • Pinch salt
  • Juice of ½ lemon
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon tahini
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 bunch kale, stems removed and chopped finely.
  • 1 apple sliced
  • 3 oz feta cheese

Directions

  1. 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.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, tahini, maple syrup, and olive oil to make the salad dressing. Add salt and pepper.
  3. Add the kale to the bowl and mix until all of the kale is coated in the dressing.
  4. Top with apple slices, feta crumbles, and approximately half of the candied almonds.

Halloween Brownies

Halloween Brownies

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print
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.

Ingredients

  • 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)

Directions

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.

Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune: book review and book club menu

Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune: book review and book club menu

Wallace Price’s death came at the least convenient of times. As a busy lawyer, he had work to do and cases to win and then he found himself at his own funeral as a ghost, watching his colleagues and his ex-wife all talk about what an asshole he was. While viewing his funeral, Wallace is collected by Mei, a bubbly young woman, who informs him that she is a Reaper, there to take him to the ferryman who will help him cross over. Wallace informs her that he does not have the time to be dead, but she takes him to a tea shop in the middle of woods, where he is to wait until he is ready to cross over.

Charon’s Crossing Tea and Treats is an unusual waiting place for the dead, given that it is full of life. Everyday the living arrive to line up for the famous tea and scones. It is in the tea shop that Wallace meets his ferryman, Hugo, a handsome and empathetic young man, who is as calm as Mei is excitable. It is also in the teashop that Wallace first meets fellow ghosts: Nelson, who was Hugo’s grandfather, and Apollo, who was Hugo’s dog.

Wallace initially spends all of his effort attempting to flee the teashop, although he quickly learns that to leave is to destroy his sense of self. So he resigns himself to watching the everyday events of the teashop, annoyed that he died in sweatpants, dooming him to an afterlife in sweats. But as Wallace broods, he becomes curious about the people and ghosts around him, especially Hugo.

Wallace’s character development is slow and excellent. He learns to care for other people and share in their grief gradually. He begins to help people who cannot even see him. A message displayed in the teashop serves as a reflection of his journey:

“The first time you share tea, you are a stranger. The second time you share tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share tea, you become family.”

The ending is not surprising, but it is lovely and perfect.

I was expecting this to be quirky and humorous. (It was.) I was not expecting it to be the sweetest and slowest love story. (It really was.) It reminded me of both A Christmas Carol and The Midnight Library, but it was more joyful and bittersweet than both of those. The world Klune created is original, but it’s the characters that make this story worth the journey. While all of the characters are enjoyable, it is Hugo who became my favorite. Recommended for readers who enjoy humorous writing, creative worlds, and LGBT love stories.

Book Club Menu

A tea time menu is the only appropriate choice for this book.

  • Assorted tea sandwiches. A recipe for a smoked salmon tea sandwich is below. Additional options would include ham and cheese; egg salad; chicken salad; and cucumber sandwiches
  • Strawberry scones (recipe below)
  • A selection of black and herbal teas (my preferred brands are Tazo and Rishi), plus sugar, cream, and lemon.
  • If serving alcohol, consider a sparkling rosé

Smoked Salmon Tea Sandwich

Smoked Salmon Tea Sandwich

  • Servings: 2 lunch portions or 4 teatime portions
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 4 slices of your preferred sandwich bread
  • 4 oz smoked salmon
  • 1/4 of an English cucumber, sliced thinly
  • 1 radish, sliced thinly
  • Whipped cream cheese
  • Dill (optional)

Directions

  1. Spread cream cheese on all 4 slices of bread.
  2. On 2 of the bread slices, layer smoked salmon, cucumber slices, radish slices, and dill (if using). Top with remaining slices of bread.
  3. Cut off crusts. Cut into desired shapes.

Strawberry Scones with White and Dark Chocolate

Strawberry Scones with White and Dark Chocolate

Adapted from Two Peas & Their Pod.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter into 1/4-inch cubes
  • ½ cup heavy cream plus 1 tablespoon
  • ½ cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup chopped fresh strawberries
  • ½ cup white chocolate chips
  • 2 tablespoons turbinado sugar
  • ½ cup dark chocolate chunks or chips
  • 1 teaspoon coconut oil

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. In a large bowl, mix together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Add the cold butter cubes to the flour mixture until it has the consistency of sand.
  3. In a small bowl, whisk together the liquid ingredients, minus 1 tablespoon of heavy cream.
  4. Add the liquid ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir. Don’t over mix.
  5. Gently fold in the strawberries and white chocolate chips.
  6. Transfer dough to a floured countertop and gently push the dough together with your hands, just until it forms a ball. Flatten the dough into a 1-inch circle, taking care not to overwork the dough. Use a knife to cut the scones into 8 triangles.
  7. Place scones on your prepared baking sheet and place it in the freezer for 25 minutes.
  8. Remove the scones from the freezer. Use a pastry brush to brush the tops of the scones with the additional heavy cream. Sprinkle the scones with turbinado sugar. Bake for 18 to 23 minutes, or until scones are golden brown on the bottom and around the edges. Let the scones cool on the baking sheet for 5 minutes and then transfer to a wire cooling rack.
  9. As the scones are cooling, melt the dark chocolate and coconut oil in a double boiler.
  10. Transfer the melted chocolate into a ziplock bag and cut off one corner of the bag.
  11. Immediately drizzle chocolate over the scones.
The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn: Book Review and Book Club Menu

The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn: Book Review and Book Club Menu

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.

Book Club Menu:

  • Cheese Vareniki with Sour Cream (recipe here)
  • Large Green Salad
  • Dessert Board (suggestions below)
  • The Diamond Eye Cocktail (recipe below)
  • The Sniper’s Mocktail (recipe below)

Dessert Board:

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.

The Diamond Eye

Ingredients

  • Juice from half a lime
  • 1 ½ oz vodka
  • 1 ½ oz St Germain (elderflower liqueur)
  • 2 oz white cranberry juice
  • Sugar for rim

Directions

  1. For the sugar rim, rub the glass rim with the lime half and then roll it in sugar.
  2. In a shaker full of ice, juice the lime half and then combine the remaining ingredients. Shake vigorously.
  3. Pour into glass.

The Sniper’s Mocktail

The Sniper’s Mocktail

Ingredients

  • Juice of ½ a lime
  • 4 oz white cranberry juice
  • 4 oz sparkling water
  • Lime garnish

Directions

In a glass full of ice, combine all ingredients and stir. Garnish with a wedge of lime.
Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead: Book Review and Book Club Menu

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead: Book Review and Book Club Menu

“Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked . . .”

This is how Colson Whitehead introduces us to his protagonist, Ray Carney.

Ray is a young husband, father, and businessman in Harlem. His father was one of the most notorious criminals in Harlem, but Ray sought to distance himself from that life, and he put himself through college and opened his own furniture store. Yes, he sells some merchandise with questionable origins, and sure, the funds he used to open his shop were a posthumous gift of sorts from his father, but he’s doing his best to become a self-made man in Harlem.

Freddie is Ray’s cousin. The two men were raised almost like brothers, given the early death of Ray’s mother and then the occasional absence and eventual death of Ray’s father. Freddie, who was raised by an honest and hardworking mother, has little use for honest work or the appearance of honest work. Just as Ray attempted to be the opposite of his father, Freddie saw his mother work hard without benefitting from it and turned to crime without a knack for it. “I didn’t mean to get you in trouble,” is Freddie’s regular response after getting himself and Ray into trouble in childhood and beyond.

It is Freddie who gets Ray involved with the heist at the Hotel Theresa, known as the Waldorf of Harlem. Ray has no idea he has been named as the man who will help them sell the stolen goods until after the theft when he ends up in a post-heist huddle with a group of hardened criminals. When one of the conspirators is found dead, Ray gets a crash course in crime, including how to dispose of a body.

While Ray is able to get himself out of the mess Freddie pulled him into and even profits from it, the events change him. On the outside, he is thriving for the first time, but a new ambition has been lit within him. Ray has always had disdain for his snobby in-laws, who are among the wealthy Black professionals of Harlem’s Strivers’ Row. He understands that the Strivers’ Row group is every bit as crooked as the hustlers of Harlem, only they know the legal loopholes that make crookedness safe and lucrative. But with his first taste of success, Ray now wants to be one of the Strivers’ Row elite and a member of the Dumas Club.

Just when Ray thinks he has his life in order, Freddie, who has kept a low profile in Ray’s life since the Hotel Theresa heist, is back and this time he gets Ray into trouble with the white patricians of New York. Ray has to use everything he knows about being “crooked” to save himself and his cousin.

The main question of Harlem Shuffle is, what does it mean to be crooked? In the late ‘50s/early ‘60s Harlem portrayed here, the “crooked” have a stronger sense of loyalty and honor than those perceived as straight or honest, and Ray finds that he can expect better of his father’s old associates than he can of his own Strivers End father-in-law. And after a lifetime of looking down on his father, Ray finally recognizes how much of his father lives on in him.

Harlem Shuffle is a thoughtful look at race and success in America, and it is also a fun read.

Book Club Menu:

Ray’s life may be complicated, but his palate is not. He is a man who prefers simple mid century meals. His ideal lunch would be two hot dogs and a coffee from Chock Full O’ Nuts. Being Midwestern AF, I thought Chock Full O’ Nuts is a coffee brand sold alongside Folgers and Maxwell House in the canned coffee section of the supermarket. Well, it is, but it was originally a classic NYC diner/lunch counter.

Therefore diner fare is the only appropriate Harlem Shuffle book club offering. However, I encourage you to update your sandwiches to 2022 by adding avocado to your BLTs and making my tomato basil grilled cheese in place of the American cheese version.

If your book club would prefer wine to a boozy root beer float, Beaujolais would pair nicely with both sandwiches.

Tomato Basil Grilled Cheese

tomato basil grilled cheese

Once upon a time, a Michigan based burger chain named Bagger Dave’s had a magical grilled cheese they called the Michigan Meltdown. This sandwich had 3 types of cheese, tomato slices, basil, and red onion. They took it off the menu and replaced it with a naan grilled cheese, which was almost a fair trade because grilled cheese naans are insanely delicious even when they lack the special Michigan Meltdown ingredients. Then they removed the second grilled cheese from the menu, and I now have trust issues. Chock Full O’ Nuts would never betray me in this fashion.

Anyhow, this is my version of the Michigan Meltdown.

Tomato Basil Grilled Cheese

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 8 slices sourdough bread, with mayo spread on one side of bread
  • 4 slices cheddar
  • 4 slices provolone
  • 4 slices swiss cheese
  • 4 to 8 slices tomato, lightly salted
  • 8 basil leaves
  • Optional: thin red onion slices

Directions

  1. Pat tomato slices dry with a paper towel. Allow tomato slices, slightly salted, to rest on a paper towel layer for approximately 15 minutes. At the end of 15 minutes, pat it dry again.
  2. Place 4 slices of bread (or as many sandwiches, as your skillet will hold) in a cold skillet, mayo side down.
  3. Top each bread slice with 1 slice of swiss, a slice of provolone, tomato slice (or 2 slices depending on the size of your tomato), 2 basil leaves, red onion slices (if using), 1 slice of cheddar, and then top with remaining bread slices, mayo side up.
  4. Turn the burner to medium heat. Leave sandwiches for 3 to 4 minutes, then flip. Reduce heat to medium low. Cook for 2 to 3 more minutes.

Perfect Air Fries

Perfect Air Fries

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 2 Russet potatoes
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • Salt
  • Optional seasonings: black pepper, garlic powder, and paprika

Directions

  1. Cut the potatoes into slices and place in a bowl of cold water. Let sit for 20 minutes.
  2. Preheat the air fryer to 400F.
  3. Pat potato slices dry with a paper towel, and then toss with 1 tablespoon of oil. Salt and add any other seasonings you wish to use.
  4. Place in the air fryer in a single layer and cook for about 8 minutes. After 8 minutes, flip the fries and air fry for another 5 to 10 minutes, depending on the size of your fries and your model of air fryer.

Boozy Root Beer Float

boozy root beer float

Boozy Root Beer Float

  • Servings: 1
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 1 scoop vanilla ice cream
  • 2 oz spiced rum (Kraken, or similar)
  • Root beer

Directions

  1. Place a scoop of vanilla ice cream in a glass. Use an ice cream that is good enough that you’d eat it on its own.
  2. Add 2 ounces of rum and then top with root beer.

Variation: If you need a lactose free float, try using a coconut milk based ice cream, as the slight coconut flavor will pair well with the rum.

Matrix by Lauren Groff: book review and book club menu

Matrix by Lauren Groff: book review and book club menu

Seventeen-year-old Marie does not meet medieval expectations of femininity. Declared too tall and too plain for marriage, she is banished from Eleanor of Aquitane’s court and sent to a failing abbey, where the nuns are dying of starvation. The abbess is kind but ineffective as a leader. Initially acting as prioress, Marie slowly gains more control over the running of the abbey. She brings a secular view to abbey administration and an independent noblewoman’s head for business. Instead of assigning each nun to tasks she is poorly suited to, with a goal of fostering a Christ-like humility, she reverses the abbey’s practices and assigns the women jobs according to their strength. One of Marie’s greatest strengths is the ability to see the potential and the danger in the women around her. In time, Marie herself becomes a powerful figure in England, in spite of or because of her plain appearance.

Based on the life of Marie de France, Matrix examines both the power that medieval women held and the limitations. Eleanor and Marie initially seem to be opposites, and the scene where Eleanor tells Marie she is to be sent to an abbey seems cruel and mocking, especially as the reader knows that Marie is in love with Eleanor. But later in life, after Marie has become abbess, the two women meet again, not quite as equals, but as two female leaders who understand each other’s struggles better than any of their companions could. From that point, the two women begin a strong and affectionate correspondence.

Men are strangely absent from the narrative, even more so than one would expect from a book about nuns. In retrospect, I cannot recall if a man is ever referred to by name in Matrix or merely referred to as the father or husband of a female character. In Marie’s memories of life at court, we only learn of the ladies, nothing of the men. Even when Marie begins having visions, they are always of the Virgin Mary (and, on one occasion, Eve) and never of Jesus. Her life is entirely without male influence. She was raised by a mother, but not a father; as a teenager at court, she is surrounded by women; and the abbey is, of course, populated by women, and Marie later guards the abbess by building a labyrinth, ensuring men cannot get into the grounds. It is perhaps because Marie has never seen herself reflected in the eyes of a man that is able to develop her notions of what a woman should be and what she should want.

Original and character-driven, Matrix is a must-read for lovers of historical fiction. While the time period initially seems difficult to relate to–the Crusades are ongoing and people bathe only a few times a year–the characters are as relatable as any modern characters. The relationships between the nuns are not unlike that of office colleagues, with personality clashes and strange alliances. And when Eleanor and Marie are treated with distrust for being powerful women, you realize that not much has changed over time.

Book Club Menu:

I haven’t gone too literal with this month’s book club menu. If I did that, you’d be feeding your book club nun-approved turnip soup and brown bread. While I have no doubt that Heidi Swanson, or some other great vegetarian cook, could make turnip soup into something delicious with nods to two or more different types of cuisine, I’m not Heidi Swanson. So we are going with a seasonal menu for appetizers and then a dessert that is more book appropriate.

I knew that any book club menu for Matrix would involve apricots. One thing that Marie takes from the court of Eleanor of Aquitane is a couple of apricots. She later plants the pits, and the trees flourish, much like Marie, in the new soil. Of course, it is November, and apricots are very much out of season, so I worked with dried apricots. Initially, I thought maybe cookies, like a rugelach, but then I remembered that I have been meaning to make an olive oil cake. If you’ve never had an olive oil cake, don’t be concerned about the olive oil flavor. It’s very delicate and it complements sweeter flavors surprisingly well.

  • Roasted Potato Rounds with Smoked Salmon and Crème Fraiche (recipe below)
  • Veggies with your favorite dip(s)
  • Apricot Amaretto Olive Oil Cake with Lemon Glaze (recipe below)
  • Rosé sparkling wine
  • Non-alcoholic sparkling cider

Roasted Potato Rounds with Smoked Salmon and Crème Fraiche

Holiday appetizer, smoked salmon potato round
  • Two large potatoes, sliced into thin rounds
  • Olive oil
  • 6 oz smoked salmon
  • Crème fraiche
  • Chives, washed, dried, and minced
  • Everything but the bagel seasoning (optional)
  1. Preheat the oven to 425.
  2. Slice your potatoes into thin rounds (less than 1/4 inch). Brush each side of the potato rounds with olive oil and arrange in a single layer on cookie sheets. (You’ll likely need two cookie sheets to avoid overlap.) Slightly salt and pepper your potato rounds.
  3. Roast for 10 minutes, then flip your potato rounds, and roast for another 10 minutes. While your potatoes are roasting, slice your salmon into small thin slices.
  4. Top each potato round with a slice of smoked salmon, a drop of crème fraiche, Everything But the Bagel seasoning, and chives.

Recommended wine pairing: Rosé sparkling wine.
Alternate wine pairing: Blanc de Blanc

Variations: Since not everyone is a fan of smoked salmon, another option would be to use a half slice (or a third of a slice, depending on the size of your potato slices) of turkey bacon in place of the smoked salmon. If going the turkey bacon route, consider broiling the potato rounds briefly with cheddar cheese before adding the toppings.

If you can’t find crème fraiche, either sour cream or plain Greek yogurt would be good substitutes.

Apricot Amaretto Olive Oil Cake

olive oil cake with apricot and amaretto

My freezer is now full of this cake, as I had to make this three times before I got the recipe exactly how I wanted it. I guess the upside of that is I now know the baking times for a cake pan (actually I used a pie pan), mini loaves, and muffins. I also have tried this with lemon glaze and lemon cheese frosting and can say that the lemon glaze was definitely preferred.

  • 3/4 cup dried apricots, chopped
  • 1/4 cup Amaretto
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3 eggs
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 3/4 cup olive oil
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  1. Preheat oven to 375.
  2. Grease your pan or muffin tin or loaf pans and set aside.
  3. Mix together apricots, Amaretto, and vanilla in a small bowl and set aside.
  4. In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
  5. In a large bowl, beat 3 eggs, and then add milk, olive oil, and sugar.
  6. Mix the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients. Fold in the apricot Amaretto mixture.
  7. Pour the batter into your cake pan or muffin tins. Baking times are 40-50 minutes for a cake pan; 30-35 minutes for mini loaf pans; and 20 minutes for muffins.

Lemon Glaze (optional)

  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • ½ cup powdered sugar

Mix together until smooth. Pour over cooled cake or loaves or muffins.

Dark and Shallow Lies by Ginny Myers Sain (YA): Book Review and Book Club Menu

Dark and Shallow Lies by Ginny Myers Sain (YA): Book Review and Book Club Menu

Seventeen years ago in the tiny Lousiana island of La Cachette, ten children were born in a single summer. They call themselves the Summer Children.

La Cachette 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. In addition to the approximately 100 human residents, La Cachette is home to venomous snakes and a 13-foot alligator named Willie Nelson.

Grey, one of the Summer Children, has only spent her summers in La Cachette since the death of her mother nine years before, but she looks forward to her high school graduation, as it will allow to move back to La Cachette full time to spend time with her closest friends, the other Summer Children, especially her best friend, Elora. However, a few months before Grey returns to La Cachette for her seventeenth summer, Elora goes missing.

When Grey returns to the island, she is determined to learn what happened to Elora, but 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.

Ginny Myers Sain’s debut novel is the perfect read for spooky season. I’ve read several books over the last month trying to find the perfect October book to review, discarding many along the way, and this was the only one that wowed me. The appeal is due to several factors: the rich Southern gothic tradition this is part of, the appeal of island fiction, and of course, a well-crafted mystery.

Dark and Shallow Lies is a very atmospheric novel. I have had a soft spot for gothic fiction set in Louisiana ever since my teenage years of binging Anne Rice, and this novel makes the most of its setting. With the very first pages, the reader is given the impression of a wild and dangerous world, endless humidity, and secrets. Beauty and the grotesque live side-by-side in La Cachette. Part of La Cachette’s mystique is that it is an island. Novels set on islands from And Then There None to Lord of the Flies create tension simply through isolation, as each islander lives only at the mercy of the other islanders, with the outside world feeling almost unreal.

The mystery is intricately plotted with many twists and turns along the way. As this is a YA mystery, there are no characters so drunk that they become accidentally unreliable narrators, which is a bonus. (If you have read a lot of mysteries/thrillers marketed for adults, you have stumbled into many an alcoholic narrator along the way.) I’m assuming the missing girl plot gives this away, but in case it doesn’t, this book is definitely for the older end of the YA spectrum, not for your 10-year-old niece. There is violence, drinking, drug references, etc. It’s ideal for teens beginning to age out of YA and for adults. I’m planning to buy a copy for my 17-year-old stepdaughter who reads mostly adult fiction these days.

As La Cachette is an easy day trip from New Orleans, the ideal book club menu would contain New Orleans specialities. This month’s book club menu consists of hot Cajun shrimp dip and muffuletta crostini.

Hot Cajun Shrimp Dip

This is a mash up of three recipes I found, plus it’s slightly lightened up with extra veggies, Greek yogurt in place of mayo, and reduced fat cream cheese. Given that this recipe is pretty much cheese upon cheese, my attempts at lightening it up are probably the equivalent of having Diet Coke with a Big Mac meal to save calories. But I feel like a Louisiana grandmother would still judge me for trying to lighten it up at all. My hypothetical grandma is known as Miss Dominique in her neighborhood and she tells me that when your time is up, your time is up, so just eat the cheese.

This dip can be served with crackers and bread. If you have club members who can’t or don’t eat carbs and/or gluten, raw veggies, plantain chips, and Nut Thins are also good dippers.

  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped
  • ½ cup celery
  • ½ sweet onion, chopped
  • 4 green onions
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 lb shrimp chopped
  • 1 tb creole seasoning
  • 1 8-oz package cream cheese (⅓ reduced fat)
  • 5 oz nonfat Greek plain yogurt
  • ½ lemon juiced
  • 1 cup pepper jack shredded
  • 1 cup cheddar shredded, divided
  • ¼ cup parmesan shredded
  1. Preheat oven to 375°F.
  2. If you don’t own an oven-safe skillet, spray a medium casserole dish with nonstick baking spray and set aside.
  3. Heat butter and oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
  4. Add the red bell pepper, celery and sweet onion and cook until the onions are translucent.
  5. Add the chopped shrimp, garlic, and creole seasoning and cook until the shrimp are opaque.
  6. Stir in cream cheese, Greek yogurt, scallions, and lemon juice.
  7. Add in the 1 cup of pepper jack and ½ cup of cheddar one handful at a time. Once the cheese is evenly incorporated, add the next handful.
  8. If your skillet is not oven proof, pour the shrimp and cheese mixture into the casserole dish.
  9. Top with remaining ½ cup of cheddar and ¼ cup of parmesan.
  10. Bake for 15 minutes and then broil for an additional two minutes.

Muffuletta Crostini

Muffuletta sandwiches are an Italian contribution to New Orleans cuisine. Full of ham, cheese, and olives, they are the type of sandwich that gets better as it sits. While I don’t doubt the transformative power of marination, I opted to transform it into a crostini here because appetizers are more fun for book club meetings. Plus it gives us an excuse to put the cheese under the broiler because melted cheese > room temperature cheese.

If there are dietary restrictions, just customize your muffuletta. For vegetarians, omit the meat for an olive melt. For lactose intolerant friends, omit the cheese. For keto friends, omit the bread and do a meat, cheese, olive roll up.

  • A baguette
  • Olive oil
  • Garlic powder
  • Thin sliced ham
  • Salami
  • Provolone cheese slices
  • ¾ cup mixed and sliced olives (I used a castelvetrano/kalamata blend)
  • 1/2 cup mild giardiniera
  1. Preheat oven to 425.
  2. Slice baguette and brush each slice with olive oil and top with a light dusting of garlic powder.
  3. Arrange sliced bread on a cookie sheet and bake for 5 to 7 minutes. Meanwhile, mix together sliced olives and giardiniera.
  4. Once you remove the toasted baguette slices from the oven, top each bread slice with a spoon of the olive/giandiniera mixture, a slice of ham, a slice of salami, half a slice of provolone.
  5. Press down on each crostini slightly to smush the olive mixture into the toasted bread.
  6. Turn on broiler. Broil your crostini for 1 to 2 minutes.

Enjoy!

The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner: review and book club menu

The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner: review and book club menu

1791:  Nella is the type of apothecary that you only hear about through word of mouth. For years, women have come to her to buy poisons to use on abusive husbands and other dangerous males. One day, twelve-year-old Eliza Fanning comes to Nella’s shop on an errand to collect a poison for her mistress’s husband. Nella expects to never see Eliza again after selling her a poison to add to her master’s morning egg, but through a series of circumstances, the young girl soon becomes part of her life.

Present day: Caroline’s trip to London was supposed to be a romantic tenth anniversary trip. Instead, she is traveling alone after learning of her husband’s infidelity. When she is invited to go mudlarking (wading in the Thames in search of historic treasure) by a history enthusiast, she finds a mysterious bottle. As she begins researching, she is fascinated by reports of a mysterious apothecary shop that once sold unusual concoctions to women.

Penner’s debut novel is deliciously readable. I loved Nella’s shop “buried deep behind a cupboard wall at the base of a twisted alleyway in the darkest depths of London” where no man would find it. I loved the late 18th century setting and watching Nella and Eliza’s relationship as it evolved from an act of hospitality (a cup of tea) to a mentor relationship.

As is generally the case with books with dual timelines, I preferred the historical story to the modern story. But Caroline is relatable. She’s a woman questioning the sacrifices she’s made in her life, with her husband’s betrayal leading her to pursue what she truly wants for the first time in years. For all of the women coming out of the pandemic, wondering if their own choices were the right ones, Caroline’s struggles will strike a chord.

The Lost Apothecary would be an excellent book club choice. And a fabulous book requires equally fabulous snacks. Here is my recommended menu:

  • Deviled eggs in honor of Eliza’s famous poison breakfast
  • Carrot and celery sticks with your favorite dip 
  • Cranberry brie bites (recipe below)
  • Nutella dip with fruit, cookies, and pretzel rods (recipe below)

For a dry meeting:

Coffee and two types of tea. If you have teapots and strainers to make loose leaf tea, all the better. Working with loose leaf tea will make you feel like Nella, mixing up a concoction that could either heal or poison. (Please don’t poison your book club. Good book clubs are worth their weight in gold.)

For a book club that serves alcohol:

The most appropriate wine to pair with The Lost Apothecary would be a bold and flavorful red. My recommendation is Bodega Garzon Tannat. This award winning Uruguayan wine is easy to find in well stocked supermarkets and its deep purple color is as beautiful and mysterious as the book cover.     

Cranberry Brie Bites:

I have only been to England once and that was in 2009. I had a list of foods to try there such as true English fish and chips and sticky toffee pudding. But curiously, one of the foods I associate with my trip is cranberry Brie sandwiches. It’s such a luxury cheese in the U.S., so I was surprised to learn that it was a common lunch item there, almost like PB&J is here, but I was perfectly happy to enjoy a Brie sandwich and black tea for lunch whenever I had the opportunity. Sandwiches can be a bit heavy for a book club choice, so bite size pastries might be more appropriate here.

If cranberry reminds you too much of the holidays, try blueberry preserves or the jam of your choice.

  • 1 package crescent roll dough
  • 8 oz Brie, cut into 24 small pieces
  • ½ cup cranberry sauce
  • ½ tablespoon Grand Marnier (optional, but recommended)
  • Springs of rosemary for garnish (optional)
  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Roll out crescent roll dough (I used parchment paper so I wouldn’t need to clean my counter before and after) and cut into 24 squares.
  3. Mix together ½ cup cranberry sauce and ½ tablespoon of Grand Marnier. If you don’t have Grand Marnier, it’s not essential, but the orange flavor complements the cranberries.
  4. Place one square into each cup of a mini muffin pan and top with a small piece of Brie and a small amount of the cranberry mixture.
  5. Bake for 15 minutes.
  6. Garnish with a rosemary sprig.

Nutella Dip:

I don’t remember how I started making this dip, but I used to make this all the time when my stepdaughters were little. It’s easy and addictive and goes well with apple slices or fresh baguette slices. It is also an ideal frosting for brownies. For a book club setting, I would recommend a cute dessert board with assorted fruit, cookies, and pretzels.

  • ½ cup peanut butter
  • ½ cup Nutella
  • ¼ cup chocolate chips

Microwave peanut butter in a small microwavable bowl for 30 seconds. Stir in Nutella and chocolate chips. Microwave for another 20 seconds. Stir and serve.