The Children on the Hill by Jennifer McMahon: book review

The Children on the Hill by Jennifer McMahon: book review

In 1978, Violet and Eric Hildreth are being raised by their grandmother, the renowned psychiatrist, Dr. Helen Hildreth. The children are self sufficient and home schooled and mostly left to pursue their own interests. And their interest is monsters. Vi and Eric are the only two members of the Monster Club, which is writing its own survival guide. “There are two main types of monsters,” they write. The first know they are monsters and the second have no idea and pass as human. Violet and Eric are distracted from their usual summer schedule of monster hunting, library trips, and sneaking into the local drive-in when Gran brings home a girl. A girl who wears a hat to hide scars on her head and who Gran tells them to treat as a sister.

In 2019, Lizzy Shelley has left her childhood name and identity behind, having no desire to be associated with the most famous true crime story in Vermont, but she has never lost her interest in monsters. In middle age, she is a successful monster hunter, reality TV star, and podcast host. She lives in her van, pursuing tips about monsters all over the continental US, minus Vermont. One particular monster plagues her. A monster that abducts young girls during a full moon. A monster she suspects to be the sister she hasn’t seen in decades.

The Children on the Hill was my favorite read of Spooky Season 2022. It’s a bit hard to classify, being a blend of gothic, suspense, and horror. Scaredy cats like me don’t need to avoid this book though. While Children on the Hill could be classified as horror, it’s an old fashioned kind of horror like Frankenstein or Dracula, and there are nods to both of those novels here. This novel is classic in every way from the tension between madness and the supernatural, and the warning against scientific progress at the expense of human morals. Much like in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the primary question here is, “What is a monster?”

Like with every good suspense novel, there are twists even when you think all has been revealed. Fans of mysteries, horror, and both classic and modern gothics will find Jennifer McMahon’s latest novel to be irresistible.

Fall French 77: A cocktail inspired by The Children on the Hill

french 77, fall cocktail, apple cocktail

In The Children on the Hill, Gran loves gin. So much so that she distills her own, with the same patience she gives to her scientific discoveries. So naturally a gin drink would be ideal to accompany this book, so I created an autumn variation on the classic French 77.

Fall French 77

  • Servings: 1
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

Ingredients

  • ½ ounce gin
  • ½ ounce elderflower liqueur (St. Germain or similar)
  • 3 ounces cider
  • Sparkling wine to top

Directions

Mix together the first three ingredients in a champagne coupe or flute. Stop with sparkling wine.
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.

Family of Liars by E. Lockhart (YA)

Family of Liars by E. Lockhart (YA)

family of liars, e lockhart, beach read

Carrie is a Sinclair. This means she has grown up a child of privilege, with the best clothes, schools, and experiences. It also means there is pressure on her to be perfect. To always be an example to her younger sisters and to excel academically, socially, and athletically. To get surgery on her jaw when her father, Harris, worries that her jaw makes her look weak. Being a Sinclair means always keeping a stiff upper lip even when the youngest Sinclair, 10-year-old Rosemary, drowns. “Be a credit to the family,” is Harris and Tipper’s instruction to their daughters. 

Carrie has spent every summer vacationing at her family’s summer home on a private island off of Massachusetts. It is a time for beach days with her sisters and cousins, her mother’s elaborate dinners, ice cream, tennis, and croquet. At seventeen, Carrie is worried about returning to the island as it will be the first summer without Rosemary and the first summer where she has to hide the narcotics addiction she developed after surgery. Carrie is distracted from her fears when her cousin, Yardley, arrives on the island with three handsome eighteen-year-old boys. Carrie, unlike her younger sisters, has never had a boyfriend, but Pfeff, who Yardley has warned her about, seems to like her and she is interested in him. It should be the most exciting summer ever on the island, but the combination of privileged boys, competitive siblings, and geographical isolation turn a promising summer into tragedy and carefully constructed lies.

Family of Liars is the prequel to We Were Liars, which is set in the modern day with Carrie’s and her sisters’ children as the main characters. If you haven’t read We Were Liars, I don’t recommend starting with Family of Liars in spite of it being chronically first as there is a large spoiler for We Were Liars at the beginning. Family of Liars is narrated by an adult Carrie looking back on her 17-year-old self. As she narrates, Carrie mostly taps into her teenage self, but there are times you can sense the adult Carrie. Adult Carrie acknowledges the privilege of generational wealth, while teen Carrie growing up in the wealth-obsessed eighties surrounded by wealthy family members and classmates, would have understood that she was unusually wealthy but not much about how it affected how she related to the world.

Carrie explains her world through fairy tales, the same stories she used to tell her youngest sister, Rosemary. Carrie and those in her life are imprinted onto the fairy tale characters. Sometimes Carrie views herself as the hero and sometimes as the villain. Sometimes she acknowledges that she is both at the same time. She tells these stories to herself, to the reader, and to Rosemary, who visits her on the island as a ghost.

Family of Liars is a perfect beach read. E Lockhart has a gorgeous writing style, and there is a dreamlike nature to the story. The story’s appeal is a combination of well developed characters, a fascination with how the 1% live, the depiction of the best and worst of family life, the slow revelation of secrets, and just a hint of Greek tragedy. Highly recommended for those who enjoy beach reads, family stories, and YA. Readers who are repulsed by overly privileged characters may want to pass on this one. It may not be suitable for younger YA readers due to language, substance abuse, and sexual situations.

Book Review: Yerba Buena by Nina LaCour

Book Review: Yerba Buena by Nina LaCour

yerba buena, book review, lgbtq fiction

Sara Foster grew up too fast. After her first love is found dead in the Russian River, sixteen-year-old Sara becomes a runaway, leaving her life of parental neglect to head to LA, doing things she would have once thought unthinkable to just to make it there. Once in Los Angeles, she takes an entry level job in a restaurant and, over the years, works her way up until she is the most sought after bartender in the city, known for her intuitive and artistic cocktails.

Emilie Dubois doesn’t know how to grow up. A seventh year college senior, she has had five different majors and has spent five years working at her best friend’s family business as a receptionist. When she’s surprised with a five-year work anniversary cake, she is startled to find she’s spent so much time standing still. Impulsively, she quits her job and becomes a florist. There she begins making floral arrangements for the hottest restaurants in town, including her family’s favorite restaurant, Yerba Buena.

Sara is working as a consultant, helping Yerba Buena develop a line of signature cocktails, when she first meets Emilie. There is an instant attraction between the two women, but Emilie is having an affair with the married owner of Yerba Buena, and it is not meant to be. Over the years, Emilie and Sara have a few chance encounters until they reach a place where they can begin a relationship. However, when a family emergency draws Sara back to her hometown, her new relationship with Emilie seems threatened.

This wasn’t the book I thought it would be. I expected Yerba Buena, the first adult novel of a YA author, to be a lesbian romance, not without depth but fairly uncomplicated. I was wrong. In the best possible way. Yerba Buena is a coming of age story. It’s about overcoming family trauma to become yourself again. It’s about socioeconomic class, opportunity, adverse childhood experiences, and hope. And if, like me, you are a romantic, there is still a love story in the background.

Yerba buena is an herb, a member of the mint family, most closely related to spearmint. The herb features in the stories of both women, and is alleged to have healing properties. And, at its heart, this is a novel about healing. Ultimately, both women need to make peace with their pasts and make decisions about their futures before they are able to plan a life together.

I would recommend Yerba Buena to readers who love literary fiction, LGBT stories, coming of age stories, and family stories. Most of all, I would recommend this to people who haven’t read many novels from a lesbian point of view but are interested in doing so.

Suggestions for beverages while reading:

For a tea option, you can make a tea with fresh leaves of yerba buena (or any mint). The characters drink tea from fresh yerba buena in a few spots of the novel. To make your own, steep 2 springs of mint in 1.5 cups of boiling water for 3 to 5 minutes. Add honey if desired.

For either a cocktail or mocktail to pair with the novel, see these recipes developed by the author’s wife, both of which are featured in the novel.

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.
Broken (in the best possible way) by Jenny Lawson (memoir)

Broken (in the best possible way) by Jenny Lawson (memoir)

Jenny Lawson is a blogger turned memoir writer, who is known for stories about her quirky Texan family, her random collections (taxidermied raccoons and creepy dolls, anyone?), her exposition of her most embarrassing moments, and most notably writing honestly about her struggle with mental illness. Broken (in the best possible way) is her third memoir and her fourth book.

Broken is everything that Lawson fans expect. In her somewhat stream of consciousness writing style, Lawson recounts the time the six times she lost her shoes while wearing them and the time she interrupted her husband Victor’s conference call with, “So I did what you told me to and returned that bag of stolen drugs and in exchange I got a big bag of dicks and that’s why I can never go back to the post office again and all of this is your fault” because as Jenny writes, “the art of mortification is what brings us all together.” Although, she sometimes uses these things in her defense to keep herself and other people apart; Jenny maintains a list of awkward things she has said to strangers to discourage her husband from insisting that she attend his work events.

It’s not all laughs. In “An Open Letter to My Health Insurance,” she carefully outlines the ways that insurance companies act as a barrier to good care, while also acknowledging that people with less privilege than her experience far worse; in “We Are Who We Are Until We Aren’t Anymore,” she discusses her family history of mental illness and dementia; in “The Things We Do to Quiet the Monsters,” she chronicles her experience with an experimental depression treatment; and in one spot of the book, she ponders what the dynamic of her marriage would be if her depression went fully into remission and she no longer had to rely on Victor quite so much.

Reading a Jenny Lawson book is like catching up with a friend you haven’t seen in a long time. Sometimes, you are laughing so hard that tears are rolling down your cheeks. (Seriously, don’t read this in public because there will be uncontrollable giggling.) At other times, it is so honest and vulnerable that you feel honored to be the recipient of her confessions. Like life, Broken is funny, beautiful, perfect, and sad all at once. While Broken, as well as all of Lawson’s other books, are must reads for anyone suffering from depression and anxiety, the audience extends far beyond the mental illness crowd. This is a great book for anyone who wants to read something both funny and thoughtful.

This Here Flesh by Cole Arthur Riley: book review (faith/memoir)

This Here Flesh by Cole Arthur Riley: book review (faith/memoir)

Cole Arthur Riley is the founder of Black Liturgies. If you are on Instagram, I strongly urge you to follow her at @blackliturgies. (She is also on Twitter and Facebook for anyone who doesn’t have Instagram.) I always find her words to be challenging, encouraging, and wise.

This Here Flesh is her first book, and it’s a collection of spiritual reflections, which are entwined with family stories. We meet Arthur Riley’s gramma, who endured both a traumatic childhood and an abusive marriage, to become a strong woman who guided her grandchildren with wisdom. Equally important is her father, a gentle and loving dad who taught her about dignity, but who is also a man with demons. And, of course, we meet Cole Arthur Riley herself who is as shy and reserved as she is intelligent and wise beyond her years.

The book is set up as a series of essays on different topics: dignity, place, wonder, calling, body, belonging, fear, lament, rage, justice, repair, rest, joy, memory, and liberation. As a whole, these writings explore finding God in all things, both the everyday and the extraordinary, and preserving your own worth in a world designed to attack your dignity and joy. I found Arthur Riley’s observations to be fresh, especially since she did not have a church upbringing. She did not grow up speaking Christianese or learning theology through well meant clichés, allowing her to see things that church kids don’t. She writes:

“I was sitting in McDonald’s with my first Bible-study leader when I told her I didn’t want Jesus in my heart. I was in my first year at the University of Pittsburgh and she, her last. She was gorgeous to me, even exposed to the fluorescent light rattling around us, but she spoke like the incarnation of a Hallmark card, which both aggravated and saddened me. I told her I wanted God out there doing something, nodding to the street beyond the glass window. Why confined to a heart?”

I was raised in white Christianity, and while the church I belong to now is quite different from the church where I grew up, I am of the opinion that there are some things that the white church does not do well. Lament is one. Looking to the Bible for a true understanding of justice is another. The Black church hasn’t had the luxury of taking these things lightly and instead these are essentials of faith. On lament, Arthur Riley writes:

“I am most disillusioned with the Christian faith when in the presence of a Christian who refuses to name the traumas of the world. I am suspicious of anyone who can observe colonization, genocide, and decay in the world and not be stirred to lament in some way. For all the goodness of God, my ancestors were still abducted from their homes, raped, and enslaved. I will not be rushed out of my sorrow for it . . . I shouldn’t need to recite a litany of wounds and injustices and decay in order to justify my sadness. In lament, our task is never to convince someone of the brokenness of the world; it is to convince them of the world’s worth in the first place. True lament is not born from that trite sentiment that the world is bad but rather from a deep conviction that it is worthy of goodness.”

This is not a breezy read you finish in a couple of days. You linger over it because each chapter leaves you with too many thoughts to simply move forward. For me, I would read a chapter either first thing in the morning or last thing at night. And when you finish it, you will want to pass it on your friends and your sisters because it is simply too good to keep to yourself. This is easily the best book I have read so far in 2022, and I suspect when we reach the end of the year, it will still be the best book I have read all year. It left me grateful to Cole Arthur Riley for sharing her thoughts, her beliefs, and her stories.

Trigger warnings: sexual and physical abuse

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.

Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez

Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez

When Olga and Prieto Acevedo were children, their activist mother left them to be raised by their grandmother in Brooklyn so she could focus on social causes. While Blanca is unembarrassed to admit she wasn’t mother material, she still sends both her children letters telling them how to live their lives. While her letters never give away her whereabouts, they do reveal that Blanca is being kept up-to-date on the lives of her children. When the siblings become adults, Blanca considers Prieto, a Democratic congressman, to be the golden child, even if he isn’t nearly as liberal as she would hope, and Olga, wedding planner to the extremely wealthy, to be the disappointing sell out. 

Olga loves her Puerto Rican heritage, but she’s a material girl. She lives close to where she grew up, but her neighborhood is gentrified. She’s learned to use both the quirks and the tricks of the rich against them to craft a clever business contract. At the beginning of the novel, Olga is 40 years old and at her peak professionally. If Olga is the pragmatist, Prieto is the idealist. Like his mother, he believes deeply in social justice, but unlike Blanca, he values people as individuals and gets to know his constituents rather than loving humanity as an abstract notion. However, Prieto also has his secrets, and he has been blackmailed by two shadowy businessmen for years, watering down his political stances.

The Acevedo siblings both find themselves at a crossroads. Olga meets a man who makes her question her life choices, from her avoidance of romantic commitments to her career goals. Prieto is under pressure from his blackmailers and he also receives life changing news. When policy is passed concerning Puerto Rico just before Hurricane Maria hits, a reversal takes place where Olga becomes the favored child and Prieto is his mother’s disgrace. After the hurricane, predators from the mainland seek to profit from Puerto Rico’s tragedy, and neither sibling is content with their comfortable lives when they see how little brown and black lives are valued.

Olga Dies Dreaming examines money and power, and the ways they do and don’t overlap. Puerto Ricans can become wealthy in this story, but they rarely become powerful. And while Blanca lacks the wealth of her overachieving offspring, she wields the type of power both Prieto and Olga lack. Similar to Prieto’s blackmailers, she holds the power of knowledge due to a large network of informants. Blanca is nearly godlike in her absence from Olga and Prieto’s life and her correspondence is nearly omniscient. At one point in the story, Prieto comes to the realization that the FBI knows more about his mother than he does. She’s not only the bogeyman of the story. Prieto’s blackmailers are nearly invisible but far more ominous than Blanca.

Ultimately, Olga Dies Dreaming is about belonging–what it means to belong to your family, what belonging means in the U.S.–and the things we gain and lose when we seek to find our place. It’s an excellent debut novel, and I look forward to seeing what Xochitl Gonzalez writes next.