Snow Day Thrillers

Snow Day Thrillers

Rock Paper Scissors by Alice Feeney

When Amelia Wright wins a weekend away in Scotland, she feels it is the perfect opportunity to repair her marriage. Adam, her screenwriter husband, reluctantly agrees to the trip but has no intention of leaving his work behind as his wife requests. After driving through a blinding snowstorm, the couple arrive at their destination: a chapel converted into a house. The housekeeper is nowhere in sight, the house is neglected and the kitchen barely stocked, and the generator unreliable. On their first evening, Amelia spots someone spying on her through the window, and both Adam and Amelia hear impossible sounds in the house. This story is told through a decade’s worth of letters written on each wedding anniversary and through Amelia and Adam’s perspectives of their ill fated weekend away. I was completely surprised by the ending and more than a little annoyed with myself for not connecting the dots, which in retrospect, were connectable. I wasn’t sure how to feel about the characters in the end, which I think might have been the author’s intent, as no one is fully innocent or guilty in this one.

Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

When Malcolm Kershaw opens his bookstore during a snowstorm, he does not expect any guests or customers. His plan is to feed the shop cat and get some work done while the rest of Boston takes refuge inside. Much to his surprise, he does receive a visitor, and she’s not there to shop. The FBI agent who visits the Old Devils Bookstore wants to talk about the blog post that Mal created years ago, a list he titled “Eight Perfect Murders.” The agent has seen some disturbing connections between Malcolm’s list and recent homicides in New England. Mal is eager to help, concerned that someone would copycat his list, but he’s also concerned the agent will uncover his biggest secret. While the other mysteries on this list all take place in isolated and snowed in locations, this is very much a city mystery. This is an excellent selection for book lovers with nods to great detective literature, a bookshop setting, and a bookstore cat. Overall, Eight Perfect Murders is a fun cat and mouse game, with a narrator who keeps you guessing. 

The Overnight Guest by Heather Gudenkauf

True crime author, Wylie Lark, has decided to finish writing her newest book at the farmhouse where the crime took place. One evening, in the middle of a severe snowstorm, Wylie searches for her dog on the grounds, only to find that her dog has located an unconscious child in the snow. Bringing both the child and the dog inside, she finds the child is traumatized and unwilling to tell her anything about how they came to be outside in a snowstorm. The Overnight Guest tells three intertwining stories: Wylie’s in the present day, Josie’s story twenty years ago when she was the sole survivor of a brutal crime, and that of an unnamed girl living with her mother. This is more unsettling than most of the list. Think In Cold Blood meets Room. If I had known going in that this was about the murder of a family, I might have hesitated to begin. This is not to discourage people from reading it, as it is a good book and intricately plotted, merely to say it’s not for all readers, as it is scarier and more violent than your average mystery/thriller.

The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

West Hall, Vermont, 1908. Sara Harrison Shea is found murdered in her yard weeks after the death of her small daughter, Gertie. Her niece publishes Sara’s journal, which talks of fortune telling and spirits wandering the woods behind the farmhouse. Sara’s journal is the source of all West Hall legends, but many residents can’t help but suspect there is truth there. Everyone in town has either known someone who has disappeared without a trace or seen something they cannot explain, and the oldest residents have always left out offerings for Sara’s restless spirit. With the exception of drunk teenagers and UFO enthusiasts, the town avoids the woods and the Devil’s Hand, the mysterious rock formation within the woods. In the present day, college student Ruthie lives in the farmhouse. When Ruthie’s reclusive mother goes missing, Ruthie and her little sister search the home for clues of their mother’s whereabouts, only to find all clues lead back to Sara Harrison Shea and her diary. As the only supernatural thriller on this list, The Winter People will appeal to a reader looking for a complex ghost story with a quirky Twin Peaks-esque setting.

One by One by Ruth Ware

Snoop, a successful English tech start up, is holding their corporate retreat in a chalet in the French Alps. When they arrive at the chalet, dressed in designer clothes and already drunk, caretaker Erin knows exactly how to handle their kind as she has done it hundreds of times before. But when the Snoop crew gets down to work, Erin begins to realize that things are a bit strange here. With the offer of a company buyout, the shareholders are torn between the two warring cofounders, Eva and Topher. And strangely, all of the pressure seems to be on Liz, the shy and awkward former secretary of Snoop. After one of the group goes missing while skiing in dangerous conditions, an avalanche isolates the Snoop staff in the chalet, and then they are murdered one by one. A well-written mystery with isolated And Then There Were None vibes, One by One is a definite page-turner.

The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley

They were the best of friends at Oxford, but they grew apart over time. Still they travel to an exotic location each year to celebrate the new year, and this year they find themselves in a luxurious yet isolated hunting lodge in Scotland. Beautiful Miranda has been disappointed by her lack of professional success in life, and so she keeps a grip on her role as queen of the friend group. Workaholic Katie wishes she hadn’t come. Emma, who joined the group as Mark’s girlfriend, wants to cement her status in the glamorous friend circle by planning the best new years celebration yet. Everyone at the lodge is hiding a secret, even the housekeeper Heather and gamekeeper Doug, and on New Year’s Day, one of them is dead. Told from alternating points of view, The Hunting Party is a suspenseful mystery.

Four Festive Mysteries for the Holiday Season

Four Festive Mysteries for the Holiday Season

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!)

What’s on your reading list this holiday season?

Witchy Reads for Halloween

Witchy Reads for Halloween

Circe by Madeline Miller (myth retold)

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.

Best Books for Foodies

Best Books for Foodies

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

j ryan stradal, kitchens of the great midwest

Eva Thorvald, daughter of a chef and sommelier, is a culinary genius. Raised by her underachieving aunt and uncle after her mother leaves and her father dies, Eva does not have any social or economic advantages, but she does have her late father’s cookbooks, which introduce her to the culinary world. This novel in short stories follows Eva from her mother’s pregnancy, to a precocious childhood where she grows hydroponic habeneros as an escape from bullies at school, to an adolescence spent befriending chefs, to her successes in adulthood. Each chapter could function as a stand alone short story and focuses on a specific food like sweet pepper jelly or dessert bars or venison. In the end, each of the foods and characters come together perfectly. I enjoyed Stradal’s writing, and the characters were well-developed. Some of the characters were more likable than others, but they all had unique voices and points of view.

Luscious Lemon by Heather Swain

luscious lemon, heather swain

After 10 years of working in restaurants, Ellie (Lemon) Mannelli has opened a successful and hip New York restaurant. Soon after her restaurant’s one year anniversary, Lemon discovers that she is pregnant. Her boyfriend, Eddie, wants to get married and for Lemon to scale back on her workaholic ways. Lemon, who has never seriously contemplated motherhood or marriage, doesn’t know what she wants, even as she falls in love with the baby she is carrying. This is wonderful: fresh and original voice, great characters (Lemon’s family, in particular, is wonderful), and is, by turns, funny and sad. The only downside to this novel is that Lemon is a bit unlikable in the first few chapters, but the reader won’t be able to help but love her by the end. Highly recommended. Read with a box of Kleenex. Trigger warning: miscarriage

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

This is a novel for foodies who also enjoy magical realism. Structured with recipes, Like Water for Chocolate tells the story of Tita, a passionate home cook whose emotions spill into the foods she prepares. Tita and Pedro are in love, but Tita’s mother, Mama Elena, refuses to allow Tita to marry, citing an old family tradition where the youngest daughter remains unmarried and cares for the parents. To remain near Tita, Pedro marries Tita’s older sister, Rosaura. Tita puts all of her pain and passion into a family meal, where she incorporates petals from a rose that Pedro once gave her. Tita’s rose-enhanced meal is the catalyst for the events of the novel, and when Gertrudis, Tita’s other sister, eats this meal, Tita’s emotions fill her and she runs away with a soldier. This family epic is full of love, loss, betrayal, and revolution.

Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala

arsenic and adobo

When Lila gets into a fight with her ex-boyfriend, Derek, in her aunt’s restaurant moments before Derek drops dead of unknown causes, she becomes the top suspect in a small town murder investigation. Seeking to prove her innocence and restore the image of the family restaurant, she conducts her own investigation, unearthing small town feuds, a corrupt health inspector, and drug trafficking. As a second generation American, I related to the younger characters who grew up with very traditional expectations, yet I wanted to see more of the older Filipino generation. I felt that Tita Rosie and Lila’s grandmother should have had more of a role, and I kept getting Lila’s many godmothers confused. As Arsenic and Adobo is the first of a series, hopefully these characters will have their opportunity to shine. Entertaining and page turning, Arsenic and Adobo is a must read for both cozy mystery fans and food lovers. I’m not even familiar with Filipino food, but reading this book made me hungry and wish Tita Rosie’s Kitchen was located in my town.

Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan

little beach street bakery, jenny colgan

When Polly’s graphic design business goes bankrupt, she loses her dreams and her long term relationship. Depressed by the rental options in her hometown of Plymouth, Polly moves into a severely neglected rental on Mount Polbearne, a not-so-fashionable beach town. Whatever her rental may be lacking (central heat, charm, a reasonable landlady), it is located over a now-shuttered bakery, and Polly loves to bake. As Polly makes friends with quirky locals, cares for an injured baby puffin, and bakes bread obsessively, she feels contentment for the first time in years. Unfortunately, her landlady, the owner of the other bakery in Mount Polbearne, is threatened by Polly’s baking and threatens to evict her for competing with her business. I probably wasn’t the target audience for this, as I’m not typically a rom-com reader and it was a bit sweet for me, but I did enjoy it. It was page-turning, I liked the quirky characters, and it did make me want to bake bread. This is a fun read for people who enjoy Hallmark movies and for people who need a breezy read to throw in their travel bag.

Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe by Heather Webber

midnight at the blackbird cafe

Twenty four years ago, high school sweethearts, Eden Callow and AJ Linden, got into a car accident just outside their hometown of Wicklow, Alabama. Eden lost her memory of that day due to the car crash while AJ did not survive. AJ’s parents were quick to blame eighteen-year-old Eden for murder due to the mysterious nature of the crash. Once cleared of wrongdoing, Eden left Wicklow for good, with no one but her mother aware that she was pregnant with AJ’s child. When Eden’s daughter, 24-year-old Anna Kate Callow, arrives in Wicklow for the very first time to bury her Granny Zee, she finds she has inherited her grandmother’s business, the Blackbird Café, on the condition that she runs it for 60 days before it is legally hers. In Wicklow, she finds that no one knew of her existence, that Granny Zee’s pies were the source of local folklore, that bird watchers and journalists have descended upon the town searching for rare blackbirds, and the Linden family wants to get to know her. Over her 60 days as a café owner, Anna Kate befriends quirky townspeople, searches for answers about her father’s death, and determines to judge the Lindens for herself. Midnight at the Blackbird Café, a family drama with a touch of magical realism, is about loss, healing, and finding your family. Enjoy with sweet tea or a slice of your favorite pie.

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

sweetbitter, stephanie danler

Tess moves to New York City after her college graduation. She is hired at an upscale restaurant in spite of a terrible interview. In the beginning, her coworkers are hostile and refuse to call her by her name, instead calling her New Girl.  Although she loses her name, she is reborn in the restaurant. She begins with a traditional Midwestern palate and no knowledge of wine, and on her journey, she becomes passionate and knowledgeable about both food and wine. She learns about other hungers–for partying and drugs, for friendship, and for sex. As a young woman with no close family or friends, Tess’ poor choices are numerous yet enthusiastic. Danler made the curious choice of presenting Tess as a blank slate when she arrives in New York. We know she has a father and that she attended college, but nothing is known about the relationships, choices, or traumas of her past. As Tess self-destructs, I kept wondering if that was what she had been doing all her life or if it was new behavior. Even though my response to this book wasn’t warm, it definitely left me in a pensive mood, and there is something very compelling about it.

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner (memoir)

crying in hmart, michelle zauner

As a child in rural Oregon, Michelle Zauner always wanted to be near her mother, to spend all her time with her, and she lived for summers spent in Korea with her mother, aunts, and grandmother. Later, as a chronically depressed adolescent, she dreamed of college on the other side of the country, feeling she could never get far enough away from her mother. When Michelle was a recent college graduate, stumbling awkwardly into adulthood, her mother was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Suddenly, all Michelle wanted to do was return to Oregon and care for her mother. Her mother had expressed her love through food, so Michelle wanted to learn her mom’s favorite Korean recipes to express her own love and to help her mother recover from cancer treatments. Crying in H Mart is compelling for several reasons. The first is that Zauner’s writing is beautiful. As a songwriter, she undoubtedly learned the importance of finding the perfect words with no room for excess. People prone to making notes in the margins or highlighting significant passages will graffiti their copies.  The second is her unflinching honesty. She portrays both the love and the cruelty of family relationships accurately, as she dwells on family belonging versus individuality and the generational and cultural factors that cause rifts between mothers and daughters. The third, of course, is the focus on food and how it relates to family and culture. Strongly recommended.

Plenty by Hannah Howard (memoir)

plenty, hannah howard

When Hannah Howard started her first restaurant job as a host, she fell in love with the food industry. Food had been a significant part of Howard’s childhood, but it quickly became her calling, and while she found success in her chosen industry, her obsession with food had a darker side: disordered eating had made food into a thing she both loved and feared. At the time of writing Plenty, Howard is a former restaurant manager turned food writer, and she has left binge eating behind but still struggles with body image. In this memoir, Howard not only tells her story, but that of women in the food industry. She writes about chefs, culinary teachers, entrepreneurs, and even a barge captain working in food-related tourism. Plenty addresses being a woman in a male-dominated environment, struggling with body image while working in food, and choosing motherhood while also chasing career goals. Trigger warning: miscarriage.

Black, White, and the Grey by Mashama Bailey and John O. Morisano (memoir)

When the Greyhound Station opened up in Savannah, Georgia, it was designed for the Jim Crow South with white and colored waiting rooms and restrooms. When New York businessman, Johno Morisano, purchased it in 2013 with dreams of opening a restaurant, the abandoned building was both a tribute to art deco architecture and a reminder of institutional racism past and present. A year later, Morisano opened The Grey with a new partner, up-and-coming chef Mashama Bailey. Black, White, and the Grey is the story of how two cofounders, one a White man and the other Black woman, learned to communicate and create a restaurant family in the modern South. It is the story of the love of food, common ground, and unconscious bias. A visit to Savannah–and to The Grey to try Mashama Bailey’s award winning cooking–is now in my future.

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain (memoir)

kitchen confidential, anthony bourdain

One of the most influential books on the restaurant industry, Kitchen Confidential follows Anthony Bourdain from his aimless adolescence to becoming a successful chef. Bourdain first entered the restaurant industry when he needed a summer job to fund his partying habits. Much to his surprise, it was more than a paycheck, as he quickly fell in love with the kitchen. He considered chefs to be rockstars, fearless and creative. The restaurant industry saved Bourdain, allowing him to develop his own work ethic and code of honor, but it also threatened to destroy him, in that it allowed substance abuse to go unchecked. Written with one part bravado, one part affection, and one part self deprecation, Kitchen Confidential introduces larger than life characters and reflects on the things we excuse for culinary genius. To be honest, this wasn’t my cup of tea as it’s a bit macho for my tastes, but I do understand why it is a much loved modern classic. Kitchen Confidential is a bit like a mob movie, horrifying and appealing all at once. If you want to read about food, but have zero desire to read about family recipes and the gentle memories they evoke, this is a good read for you.

Taste by Stanley Tucci (memoir)

stanley tucci, taste
A second-generation Italian-American, Stanley Tucci grew up eating traditional Italian foods. He talks of his mother’s recipes, family gatherings, and his grandfather’s homemade wine. While he acknowledges how lucky he was to grow up with strong culinary traditions, he also recounts how he and his sisters coveted American foods like peanut butter and Velveeta. His palate grows more diverse in his years as a struggling actor in NYC and then sophisticated as he establishes his movie career. He relates a story of being taken out for lunch by Italian film legend, Marcello Mastroianni, and of another lunch where he and Meryl Streep experience some language barriers when reading the menu. Near the end of the memoir, Tucci returns to telling family stories, but this time he is talking about raising three young adults and two small children with his wife, Felicity, while battling cancer and later sheltering in place during COVID. In this likable memoir, Stanley Tucci comes across as equal parts debonair movie star and perfectly normal American dad who puns frequently and is proud of every last pun.
Pride Month Reading List

Pride Month Reading List

It wasn’t long ago that fiction authored by LGBTQI+ authors was considered niche. It’s only over the last two decades that books celebrating gay and lesbian lives have become mainstream, and these are still the first books to be banned from schools. This recommended reading list includes literary, mainstream, historical, and YA fiction.

Happy Pride Month to all members of the LGBTQI+ community.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Not quite famous novelist Arthur Less desperately wants to get out of the country. He hasn’t committed a crime and he isn’t on the run, but he wants an iron clad reason not to attend his long term lover’s wedding. So he goes through his junk mail, accepting teaching appointments at random German universities, attending previously unheard of literary awards in Italy, taking on a food writing assignment in Japan, and agreeing to attend a friend of a friend’s birthday celebration in Morocco. During the course of his travels, Less accumulates a series of embarrassing moments, surprise victories, and flings. He prepares to turn fifty, thinking, “He has never seen another gay man age past fifty, none except Robert. He met them all at forty or so but never saw them make it much beyond; they died of AIDS, that generation. Less’s generation often feels like the first to explore the land beyond fifty.” Although Less has its serious moments and won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, it is overall entertaining and perfect for your next beach vacation.

The Guncle by Steven Rowley

At age forty-three, Patrick is a retired sitcom actor who lives alone in Palm Springs. He has a Golden Globe and an Oscar Wilde quote for every occasion. What Patrick does not have is experience with children, and he is a stranger to his niece and nephew who simply know him as GUP (Gay Uncle Patrick). When Patrick’s sister-in-law and best friend, Sara, passes away, and his brother goes into rehab for a pill addiction that went unnoticed during Sara’s battle with cancer, Patrick finds himself temporary primary caregiver for nine-year-old Maisie and six-year-old Grant. Given that the kids don’t drink martinis, he’s not quite sure how to bond with them, and he definitely doesn’t know how to help them with their grief given that he has never recovered from losing his own partner years before. There are missteps and careless words aplenty, but Patrick finds he was made to be a guncle.

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

It is 1985, and the Boystown district of Chicago is in the midst of the AIDS epidemic. The Great Believers opens with Yale Tishman grieving the loss of his friend, Nico. Like many of the early AIDS casualties, Nico had his final medical decisions made by estranged family members, rather than those closest to him, and was given a funeral that reflected the values of his relatives rather than Nico’s own. With his partner Charlie, Yale attends a life celebration for Nico, and at this event, misunderstandings and jealousy destroy Yale and Charlie’s relationship. Yale comes to learn that his relationship was not safe and monogamous as he had always thought. The second storyline of The Great Believers follows Fiona, Nico’s sister, in the present day as she seeks out her estranged daughter in Paris. As Fiona searches for Claire, she stays with her friend, Richard, an artist preparing for a show that will honor his fallen friends from Chicago. The Great Believers is a powerful story, and Makkai’s writing is beautiful. As I was very young when the AIDS epidemic began, it took decades for me to understand how it affected an entire generation of gay men and how politics and the witholding of funds turned a public health issue into genocide.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

When Monique Grant, a struggling journalist at a crossroads in life, is given an opportunity to write a biography of classic movie star, Evelyn Hugo, she accepts. Hugo is a Hollywood legend, known for her sexy roles and her seven marriages, and Monique knows writing this book could change her life. Born Evelyn Herrera in Hell’s Kitchen, Evelyn leaves New York for Hollywood as a teenager. After changing her surname, losing her accent, and dying her hair blond, she finds success in the movie industry. Evelyn has both beauty and talent, but she learns that high profile marriages are as important to her career as appearing in high profile films. And if those high profile marriages turn abusive, a film icon never lets the adoring public know. What Monique comes to learn is that Evelyn has had seven husbands, but only one true love, who was definitely not one of her husbands. But Evelyn’s sexual orientation isn’t her only secret and her last revelation to Monique completely rewrites Monique’s understanding of her own past.

Life Mask by Emma Donoghue (historical fiction)

Eliza Farren, a well-known comedic actress of 18th century London, prizes her reputation above all else. Through sheer talent, she has been able to move from being an impoverished child thespian in the country to being one of the most well known faces in Drury Lane. While most actresses of the time relied upon aristocratic donors for economic security, Eliza is unwilling to become a man’s mistress. This is unfortunate for Eliza’s greatest admirer, Edward Smith-Stanley, the Earl of Derby. When Derby’s bored aristocratic friends put on an amateur play, he gets Eliza involved as advisor, which brings her into London’s aristocratic social sphere. As rehearsals go on, a friendship develops between Eliza, Derby, and the widowed sculptor Mrs. Anne Damer. The three maintain a close friendship until rumors spread that Eliza and Anne’s relationship is more than platonic. While Derby initially thinks the rumor is absurd, he grows jealous and demands that Eliza choose between him and Anne. Life Mask is intricately researched historical fiction, and Eliza, Derby, and Anne were real historical figures. It might not be for readers who get bored with too much historical detail, but I was totally immersed in the late 18th and early 19th century world.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (historical fiction)

Sue Trinder, the seventeen-year-old orphaned daughter of a convicted murderer, has been raised in Victorian London by Mrs. Sucksby, baby farmer and petty criminal. While Sue has grown up committing petty thefts and learning to transform stolen goods into new and unidentifiable goods, she has never known neglect or lack of love as Mrs. Sucksby’s favorite orphan. One day, a conman, simply known as “Gentleman,” shows up at Mrs. Suckby’s house with a proposal for Sue. Gentleman wants Sue to take a job as a lady’s maid to heiress, Maud Lilly, and convince Maud to elope with Gentleman. Once Maud and Gentleman are married and he has control over Maud’s fortune, he will then share a portion of the fortune with Sue. With Mrs. Sucksby’s permission, Sue agrees to the scheme. But once Sue is at Briar, she learns that Maud, like her, is seventeen and motherless. The two girls even look similar. Despite their differences in class and upbringing, Sue and Maud become close and Sue begins to realize her feelings for Maud are far from sisterly. She wants to extricate herself from Gentleman’s scheme, but she needs the money to repay Mrs. Sucksby for all that she has done for her, and she doesn’t realize Gentleman’s scheme is wider than she ever imagined. Fingersmith is a very fun and intricately plotted historical novel.

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson (YA)

Noah and Jude are twins with extremely different personalities. At thirteen, introverted Noah looks to his art to save him, while adventurous Jude’s priority is on her social life. At sixteen, the relationship between the twins has been destroyed, and Jude is now the anti-social twin who looks to art as her salvation. Noah is outwardly the more successful twin, but beyond the surface, he isn’t doing any better than Jude and is more firmly wedged in his closet than he was at thirteen. The novel alternates chapters narrated by Noah at thirteen with chapters narrated by Jude at sixteen. This is a beautiful novel about loss, family, love, identity, and what happens after you’ve done things that seem unforgivable.

Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney Stevens (YA)

Otters Holt, Kentucky values traditional femininity. The town is the home of Molly the Corn Dolly, a forty-foot-tall statue that is its sole tourist attraction, and a corn dolly is awarded every year to an outstanding woman. Corn Dolly winners are pie bakers, gardeners, caregivers, and pillars of the community. Daughter of the local youth pastor, Billie McCaffrey is outside the Otters Holt ideal and is infamous for setting the church youth room on fire at a lock-in when she and her friends microwaved a smelly sock and her dad’s World’s Best Minister mug. However, when the Harvest Festival and corn dolly award are canceled, it is Billie and her group of misfits who develop a fundraising scheme to save the festival. Throughout the book, Billie is seeking to understand gender and sexuality. She resents that the church community demands that she can only love boys, but she also resents that her friends assume she is gay simply because she’s a tomboy. Her friends attempt to nudge her out of the closet when she just wants to figure out her sexual orientation for herself. While this book could have gone badly (either too sweet or too cynical), it never does because Billie is such a fresh, likable character.

2022 New Releases: Thrillers

2022 New Releases: Thrillers

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.

Beyond Austen and the Brontës: Classic Literature for Women’s History Month

Beyond Austen and the Brontës: Classic Literature for Women’s History Month

Not many women have been permitted into the Western literary canon. As someone who majored in English literature, I do have a healthy distrust of the canon. While the most benevolent view of the literary canon is that these are the works who have endured the test of time, it cannot be denied that political power, literary and academic trends, racism, sexism, and colonialism that dictated what can survive, regardless of literary merit. When we think of women in literature prior to the 20th century, very few names come to mind. Usually it’s Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, and understandably so, but there are so many female authors from their time period who deserve more attention. 

Evelina by Fanny Burney: 

Fanny Burney was an author who influenced the work of Jane Austen. Like in many of Austen’s novels, the protagonist is a young woman just entering society. With no advantages of wealth or birth, Evelina must use her own good sense to preserve her own reputation in the public eye and to determine which young men are of good character. Like most novels of the late eighteenth century, Evelina is an epistolary novel, which is initially jarring for the modern reader. Once the reader adjusts to a narrative told through letters, Evelina is an entertaining read, full of social mishaps, youthful crushes, and misunderstandings. Evelina would be popular with Austen lovers, as it has a similar struggles, but Burney’s world is a bit grittier and dangerous to women than Austen’s. Even Mr. Wickham is an amateur next to some of the scoundrels that Evelina encounters.

Belinda by Maria Edgeworth

When Belinda comes of age, Mrs. Stanhope, her aunt who was meant to introduce her to society, grows ill and arranges for Belinda to go to London with the witty and fashionable Lady Delacour. Once in London, Belinda is pursued by questionable gentlemen, and she becomes acquainted with the numerous skeletons in the Delacour family closet. Belinda is a very rational and reasonable heroine, who always remains pristine, as the more emotional females of the story are constantly being led into folly. However, it is the passionate and emotional Lady Delacour who dominates the page and gets to deliver the wittiest lines in the book. If Belinda occasionally lacks sparkle, her love interest does not. Clarence Hervey is in many ways a traditional hero of that time period. He is gentlemanly and honorable. But in other ways, Clarence is quite ridiculous. If you were to dine with Clarence, he would know more about wine than anyone else at the table, all of his knowledge quite made up. At one point, he nearly drowns in the Serpentine because he bets a friend that he can beat him across, even though he doesn’t actually swim (though he read a jolly helpful essay that explained how to swim). While Belinda is occasionally didactic, it is overall a delight to read.

The Scarlet Pimpernel by by Baroness Orczy

I’m cheating slightly with this one, as this is the only one on the list not from the 18th and 19th centuries, but given that this was published before the first world war, it somehow seems far less modern than the novels of Virginia Woolf. The Scarlet Pimpernel is what you want to read when you want something both literary and escapist. The Scarlet Pimpernel is the greatest English spy of the French Revolution, who manages to rescue French aristocrats right before they are taken to the guillotine. All of London society is fascinated by the Scarlet Pimpernel, including Lady Blakeney, who has no idea that her dandyish husband, Sir Percy Blakeney, is the Pimpernel. When Lady Blakeney’s brother is taken by the villain, Chauvelin, both her brother and her husband are in danger. The Scarlet Pimpernel is both romantic and charming and guaranteed to be a hit among readers who like a hero with a secret identity.

And if we hop the pond, here is some literature from North America:

The Poetry of Phyllis Wheatley

When I first considered adding Phillis Wheatley to this list, it was because she was a pioneer. Not only was she one of the first women in American literature, she was the first Black woman to be widely read in the colonies. But when I began to read Poems on various subjects, religious and moral, I finally understood why I’ve only read about Wheatley in history books and not read her work in literature texts. From the preface of the book which declares that she had been “brought an uncultivated Barbarian from America” to one of her own poems, which includes the passage, “‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,” it is problematic. I’m not saying this in criticism of Wheatley. She was an enslaved Black woman living in a white man’s world. She might have been smarter than the men around her, but she was not in a position to safely criticize societal ills. So why did I include Phillis Wheatley? Simply because it is an uncomfortable read and because it shows the complex relationship America has with race, both then and now.

Amber Gods and Other Stories by Harriet Prescott Spofford

The American Gods and Other Stories is one book that is featured in the American Women Writers series, a collection of early American literature rescued from obscurity from the women’s studies scholars at Rutgers. This haunting collection of short stories can hold its own with Hawthorne, Melville, and other writers of American Romanticism. My favorite story of the collection is “Circumstance,” where a young pioneer woman is walking home from a neighbor’s house at night and a panther pounces on her. To keep the cat from mauling her, she has to sing the beast into calmness. So she sings every song she knows as the great cat relaxes, and the result is an otherworldly story that stays with you. If I’m honest, I’m not much for short story collections. I usually prefer novels, as I like to get attached to characters over the span of a few hundred pages, but this one is one of my favorite books as each of the stories is beautifully written and original. It’s a shame that this book became so obscure.

The Hidden Hand by E.D.E.N. Southworth

This is another selection from Rutgers American Women Writers series. The Hidden Hand is a ridiculous delight with a heroine, named Capitola, who rescues people in distress while riding her pony through the Virginia countryside and a villain named Black Donald who is constantly disguising himself to fool people. When the reader first meets Capitola, she is a young orphan, disguising herself as a boy to survive. When her eventual guardian, Major Ira Warfield, first encounters Capitola, she is in trouble for the “crime” of crossdressing. To keep her from being sent to a workhorse for her crime, the major offers to adopt her. The legal authorities seem to think the major wants to prey on her, but they consider that to be less morally questionable than Capitola donning trousers and let the old man take her away to his home, Hurricane Hall, in rural Virginia. Luckily for Capitola, the major’s concern was fatherly, and at Hurricane Hall, Capitola is able to become her true adventuresome self.  While the writing style of The Hidden Hand is more sensational than literary, Southworth does have an understanding of gender roles that seems advanced for the mid-nineteenth century, and the novel is just too much fun for the reader to care if it’s Deeply Important Art.
Black History Month Reading List

Black History Month Reading List


Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Just Mercy is the memoir of Bryan Stevenson, founder of Equal Justice Initiative and an attorney who represents those who have been wrongly accused of crimes. While the book spans Stevenson’s entire career in law, the primary focus is on Walter McMillian, a Black man who was put on death row for a murder he did not commit. His accuser was a white man who was trying to strike a deal with local law enforcement to escape punishment for his own crimes by “solving” a recent murder that outraged the small town. Local law enforcement immediately latched on to his story about McMillian, even though Walter McMillian had dozens of alibis on the day of the murder. When Stevenson became involved in the McMillian case, Walter was already on death row. Stevenson sought to reveal the cover ups and corruption that defined the case, and before long, he was receiving bomb threats at the office. Just Mercy will give you an appreciation for those who represent the underrepresented in the court of law.

Autobiography of Malcolm X, told to Alex Haley. Malcolm X’s autobiography is a story of metamorphosis. Malcolm’s youth was characterized by adversity. Brilliant, but with few options in life and no one to look for him, Malcolm turned to crime in Harlem and Boston, driven only by his survival instinct. When Malcolm is sent to prison, he encounters the Nation of Islam. He not only has a new faith, but a new way of seeing himself apart from the narrative of white supremacy. He becomes an activist and a scholar and drops the surname of Little inherited from white slave holders. As Malcolm becomes more influential, his fellow leaders in the Nation of Islam turn against him. What stuck with me was how many times Malcolm, when presented with new information, was willing to change his mind and become a better version of himself. In our current age of misinformation, I feel like we could all be a bit more like Malcolm, looking for truth and not dismissing information that conflicts with our beliefs. His fascinating life story is enhanced by an amazing memory for detail, and the reader feels like they are really there through Malcolm’s zoot suit and clubbing phase, his hustling days in Harlem, and the civil rights movement of the sixties. Highly recommended.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot*. It wasn’t until I began working at the School of Public Health at a major Midwestern university that I learned about the dark side of medical research in the U.S. While I probably read about the Tuskegee syphilis study at some point in a U.S. history class, it would have likely been in a sidebar of a history book. On the whole, I didn’t realize just how much medical research had been done on both people of color and on incarcerated populations without informed consent. Prior to the National Research Act of 1974, research studies could violate the elements of Nuremberg code without penalty. The case of Henrietta Lacks is just one example. Henrietta Lacks was a young Black wife and mother diagnosed with cervical cancer in the early fifties. Unknown to Lacks and her family, her cells were taken for research. Her cells, known as HeLa to scientists, were unusual for their “immortality.” Harvested HeLa cells were used in various scientific research projects that earned millions, but Lacks herself was buried in an unmarked grave and her surviving family couldn’t afford health insurance. Author Rebecca Skloot, along with the family of Henrietta Lacks, sought to bring awareness to this case and to the health inequities that people of color continue to experience.


The Hate U Give (YA) by Angie Thomas. Starr Carter lives in Garden Heights, a mostly black neighborhood where neighbors take care of each other and gang violence affects everyone’s lives no matter how hard they try to avoid it, and she also attends a mostly white school, Williamson Prep.  She has friends in each world, but they never mix, and she prefers to keep it that way. When Starr attends a party that turns violent, she leaves with her childhood friend, Khalil. On the way home, Khalil is pulled over for a broken taillight.  Pulled out of the car by an aggressive cop, Khalil is treated like a criminal, and when he opens the door to ask Starr if she is all right, the cop assumes Khalil is reaching for a gun and shoots him in the back, killing him. After Khalil’s murder, Starr cooperates with the police in the investigation, but quickly realizes they are not interested in investigating the cop but in investigating Khalil and Starr. Soon, Starr is no longer able to keep quiet, learning that she can only honor Khalil’s life by becoming his voice.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. Mallard, Louisiana is a town full of self-loathing, and the Vignes twins dream of escape. Like the rest of Mallard, Desiree and Stella are Black but appear white. The residents of Mallard are very proud of their light skin, but it does not protect them from racism or even lynching. As small girls, the twins witness the lynching of their own father, and this event defines how each twin views race and her own appearance.  At sixteen, the girls run away to New Orleans, but Stella soon leaves her twin to begin her new life as a white woman. Desiree marries a man so dark skinned he would never be accepted in Mallard, while Stella marries a white man and lives in fear of discovery. Each twin has a daughter, and in early adulthood, the girls meet in late seventies Los Angeles. The Vanishing Half is a complex examination of identity, belonging, and the effects of racism.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. When Caesar invites Cora to run away from the Randall plantation, she initially says no, but then she remembers her mother Mabel, who was the only enslaved person to successfully run away from the Randalls. Caesar and Cora join the underground railroad, which is a literal underground train in this novel, and they must stay two steps ahead of the infamous slave catcher, Ridgeway, at all times. Cora finds each state to be a completely different world. Her birth state of Georgia is a land of misery and evil landowners; South Carolina wears a progressive face, but it has secrets; North Carolina is a nightmare police state with a hanging tree in the town square, where children turn in their parents to the gallows and neighbors turn on neighbors; etc. This novel is original and expertly crafted. I read a lot of books, and most of them blur in my head afterwards, and this is a book that you remember years after first reading.

*While author Rebecca Skloot herself is not Black, I am including her book in this list as it is very appropriate for Black History Month.

Winter Books: A Hygge Reading List

Winter Books: A Hygge Reading List

Beach reads are an established pseudo-genre. There is no shortage of sun-soaked escapist reads. But they do have an opposite. Books set in the dead of winter tend to be atmospheric and more delicately plotted. These are books you will want to read with a cup of cocoa, a tartan blanket over your legs, and a candle burning on your coffee table. Hygge vibes are not optional.

City of Thieves by David Benioff

Set during the siege of Leningrad, Lev and Kolya find themselves in prison and due to be executed. The two young men are told that they will be permitted to live if they accomplish the impossible: find one dozen eggs for the wedding cake of a Soviet colonel’s daughter. Lev and Kolya wander the starving city, chasing down rumors of still un-slaughtered chickens, making unlikely friendships, and fleeing enemies. This is a great read for someone looking for a more unconventional World War II novel, and you will love the characters.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

The year is 1987 and 14-year-old June Elbus has only one friend: her uncle Finn. After Finn’s death from AIDS, Toby comes into her life. While June had never been told of his existence, Toby had been Finn’s partner for approximately a decade. “I was the man no one wanted to see,” Toby says of his role in both Finn’s life and funeral. “He’s the guy who killed Uncle Finn,” June’s sixteen-year-old sister, Greta, says of Toby. June isn’t sure if Toby killed her uncle or not, but she is grateful to befriend someone who understands her loss, and she knows the only time that she can spend time with Toby is during tax season, when her accountant parents are not home. Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a beautiful story of a misfit friendship.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Mabel and Jack, a married couple mourning their dream of having children, move to Alaska to get away. The couple is unprepared for the darkness, the cold, seasonal affective disorder, and food insecurity in a difficult-to-farm land. One day, Mabel and Jack in a rare moment of playfulness, build a snow child in their yard. The next day, the snow child is destroyed, but a little girl is spotted running through the woods, accompanied by a fox. The couple tries to find the identity of the little girl, but there are no families with small children living in the vicinity, and Mabel remembers a Russian folktale her father told her about an elderly couple who make a snow child, and the child leaves them because they resort to dishonest measures to keep her. A memorable read that blends early 20th century Alaskan history, magical realism, and Russian folklore.

The Dark Monk by Oliver Potzsch

Full disclosure: This is actually the second book in the Hangman’s Daughter series, but I know you can read them out of order because this is the first of the series I read, and it did not confuse me or keep me from reading the first book afterwards. This book set in 17th century Bavaria is a murder mystery in a perfect snow globe of a setting. When a well-liked priest is poisoned, Jakob Kuisl, hangman, and Simon Fronwieser, son of the local physician, turn to a note the priest scribbled just before his death for clues. As they search for answers, they attract the attention of a dangerous sect of monks and learn about a legendary treasure of the Knights Templar. Jakob Kuisl is an intriguing detective. He’s a hangman because he has little choice in the matter, being descended from a line of hangmen, but he’s also well-read, moral, and honorable. The very fact that he is the one who has to execute convicted murderers is what gives him the incentive to make sure the correct person is caught.

One by One by Ruth Ware

Snoop, a successful English tech start up, is holding their corporate retreat in a chalet in the French Alps. When they arrive at the chalet, dressed in designer clothes and already drunk, caretaker Erin knows exactly how to handle their kind as she has done it hundreds of times before. But when the Snoop crew gets down to work, Erin begins to realize that things are a bit strange here. With the offer of a company buyout, the shareholders are torn between the two warring cofounders, Eva and Topher. And strangely, all of the pressure seems to be on Liz, the shy and awkward former secretary of Snoop. After one of the group goes missing while skiing in dangerous conditions, an avalanche isolates the Snoop staff in the chalet, and then they are murdered one by one. A well-written mystery with isolated And Then There Were None vibes, One by One is a definite page-turner.

The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley

They were the best of friends at Oxford, but they grew apart over time. Still they travel to an exotic location each year to celebrate the new year, and this year they find themselves in a luxurious yet isolated hunting lodge in Scotland. Beautiful Miranda has been disappointed by her lack of professional success in life, and so she keeps a grip on her role as queen of the friend group. Workaholic Katie wishes she hadn’t come. Emma, who joined the group as Mark’s girlfriend, wants to cement her status in the glamorous friend circle by planning the best new years celebration yet. Everyone at the lodge is hiding a secret, even the housekeeper Heather and gamekeeper Doug, and on New Year’s Day, one of them is dead. Told from alternating points of view, The Hunting Party is a suspenseful mystery.

2021 Halloween Reads: Gothic Novels

2021 Halloween Reads: Gothic Novels

Gothics are one of my favorite genres. If you like to be spooked, but don’t quite have the stomach for horror, gothics can be an excellent choice for a Halloween read. The genre ranges from the literary (Frankenstein, Turn of the Screw, Jane Eyre, etc.) to ’60s and ’70s novels of young women terrified in spooky old homes, as seen in the graphic below. Gothic signatures include wealthy old houses, sins of the father living on through the generations, gloomy weather, the supernatural, decay, and madness.

A tweet that amused me a little too much.

Given the range of the genre, there is something for everyone from the most analytic literature snob to the person who just wants to turn off reality and get lost in an atmospheric book. I’m probably both of those reader types at different times of my life, and here are my absolute favorites:

Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.

The Cemetery of Lost Books is a secret library hidden in Barcelona. It exists so no book can ever be fully removed from existence, but can still be discovered by readers, long after it has gone out of print.

A young boy named Daniel is introduced to the Cemetery of Lost Books by his father while they are both mourning the loss of Daniel’s mother. Per policy, Daniel is allowed to take one book as it is his first visit, and he selects The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax. As Daniel falls in love with his selected book, he learns the writing of Carax is rare, specifically because someone has been destroying all copies of his work. As Daniel searches for the truth, his life begins to mirror that of Carax and also become as strange and mysterious as the plot of The Shadow of the Wind. Quite possibly the best gothic since The Haunting of Hill House, Shadow of the Wind portrays a post-Civil War Spain where the real world horrors, the supernatural, and madness blur together in an intricate plot.

Home Before Dark by Riley Sager.

Maggie Holt restores historic homes for a living, always looking for the story behind the house. But the story that has always eluded her was that of Baneberry Hall, where she and her family lived briefly when she was five before fleeing in the middle of the night. Shortly after, Maggie’s father wrote a memoir about their supernatural experiences at Baneberry Hall, a book the adult Maggie always dismissed as a money making opportunity until she inherits Baneberry Hall after her father’s death and realizes she cannot explain the things that go on there. There are nods to Hill House and The Shining here, but Home Before Dark moves beyond that to become its own contribution to gothic literature. It contains the classic scares, constantly makes the reader question what is real, and then comes to a wonderfully twisty conclusion.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.

Shortly after World War II, Dr. Faraday is called to Hundreds Hall to care for a young maid. The maid expresses her dislike of the once-grand house to him, but Hundreds Hall, home to the Ayres family, has been a source of fascination and envy for Faraday since childhood. As the son of a maid, Faraday has risen in the world, while the respected Ayres family has lost most of its wealth. Dr. Faraday becomes the physician of Roderick Ayres, who was injured in the war, and a suitor to Caroline Ayres, a partnership that would not have been possible a decade prior. As Dr. Faraday becomes essential to the Ayres, he can’t help but notice a shadow of evil in Hundreds Hall and that tragedy keeps coming for the Ayres one by one.

Classic Gothics:

Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.

After caring for her mother through a long illness and putting her own life on hold, Eleanor receives a cryptic invitation to take part in a research project at a long abandoned house called Hill House. At Hill House, she meets people just like her–people who have had supernatural experiences–as Dr. Montague tests his theories of the paranormal with his new assistants. The temporary residents first find Hill House to be unsettling and then terrifying. In many ways, Haunting of Hill House is the classic haunted house story, but it’s ghosts are never seen. In fact, it seems to be the house itself that is the source of the evil.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen.

Seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland is delighted when her neighbors invite her to visit Bath with them. As the frequently ignored daughter of a clergyman,Catherine has experienced no excitement in her own life, only in the plots of the gothic novels she prefers to read. When Catherine makes friends with the elegant Eleanor Tilney at Bath and is invited to stay at Eleanor’s home, Northanger Abbey, she feels that her life has truly begun. But the longer Catherine is at Northanger, the more concerned she becomes that something is wrong, specifically concerning the death of Eleanor’s mother. Could the intimidating General Tilney be a murderer? Jane Austen’s parody of gothic novels is a perfect Spooktober read for all the people who want something spooky but not actually scary.

Turn of the Screw by Henry James.

The Turn of the Screw opens with guests telling ghost stories at a Christmas Eve party. One guest tells the story of a governess who saw ghosts after moving to a remote country estate to care for two orphaned children named Flora and Miles. The uncle of the children was not interested in raising his niece and nephew and left all of the children’s care to the governess. Once in her role, the governess begins seeing a strange man and a woman on the grounds, and from things she has been told by the housekeeper, she decides they are the ghosts of Quint, the late valet, and Miss Jessel, previous governess to the children who had also recently died. Like with many other gothic stories, it is unclear what is real and what is imagination in the Turn of the Screw and as its narrator is a young man amusing partygoers with a ghost story, it adds an additional layer of distance and doubt.