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


  • 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


  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


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


  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


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


  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.

Taste by Stanley Tucci: Book Review and Book Club Menu

Taste by Stanley Tucci: Book Review and Book Club Menu

Stanley Tucci is known for starring in food-centered films like Big Night and Julie and Julia. In Taste, he writes about how his love of food has shaped his relationships and career. His writing style is informal and personal, and I read the entire book with Tucci’s voice in my head. If you have watched Stanley Tucci’s Searching for Italy on CNN, you know that Tucci has a friendly warmth about him. This food-based memoir is full of that warmth. He is equal parts debonair movie star and perfectly normal American dad who puns frequently and is proud of every last pun.

A second-generation Italian-American, 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. As the daughter of immigrant parents, I understood this sentiment very well, and at times, Tucci’s family stories felt like my family stories. There was a humorous story of his grandmother forcing a large bag of her garden tomatoes on Tucci’s resistant mother that mirrors a recurring conversation my mom and I have every time I visit her in August when my parents’ tomato gardens are at their peak.

He talks about being a struggling actor in a pre-gentrification in NYC, and I am now mourning a New York City that I never got a chance to know, before Starbucks took over every city block. He writes of Carnegie Deli with great fondness and of now-defunct Cuban-Chinese restaurants. As someone who grew up with Ukrainian-Paraguayan cuisine (yes, you are reading that correctly), I was particularly intrigued by the notion of Cuban-Chinese cuisine. As he grows more successful, Tucci’s reports of food become more sophisticated. 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.

Pour yourself a glass of wine or fix a martini (recipe on page 201; Tucci will judge you if you make it incorrectly), and enjoy the story. I would recommend Taste to foodies, memoir fans, and film lovers. People offended by swearing should probably pass on this.

Book Club Menu:

I get to cheat on this month’s book club menu since Taste includes recipes. The mocktail recipe is the only one that is my own, as there should always be a beverage option for book club members who either can’t or don’t drink alcohol.

Cocktail: A Christmas Cocktail (p 120)
Mocktail: A Christmas Mocktail (recipe below)

Tomato Salad (p. 46)

Main Course:
For vegetarian option: Pasta con Aglio e Olio (p 17) OR
For omnivore option: Ragù Tucci with Rigatoni or Penne (p 71)

If serving wine with your main course, Pasta con Aglio e Olio pairs with either Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc and the Ragu will pair with Sangiovese or Barbera.

Biscotti with coffee and tea

Christmas Mocktail:

Per mocktail:

  • 4 oz cranberry juice
  • 4 oz ginger kombucha
  • Garnish: rosemary sprig, pomegranate arils

Pour cranberry juice into an old fashioned glass filled with ice. Top with kombucha. Garnish with a rosemary sprig and pomegranate arils.

Matrix by Lauren Groff: book review and book club menu

Matrix by Lauren Groff: book review and book club menu

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

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

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

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

Book Club Menu:

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

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

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

Roasted Potato Rounds with Smoked Salmon and Crème Fraiche

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

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

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

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

Apricot Amaretto Olive Oil Cake

olive oil cake with apricot and amaretto

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

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

Lemon Glaze (optional)

  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • ½ cup powdered sugar

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

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.

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

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

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

La Cachette is an island so isolated there is no cell service or internet access. The residents make their living from the tourist trade, marketing themselves as the Psychic Capital of the World, selling psychic readings, crystals, and love potions. In addition to the approximately 100 human residents, La Cachette is home to venomous snakes and a 13-foot alligator named Willie Nelson.

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

When Grey returns to the island, she is determined to learn what happened to Elora, but no one in a town of psychics seems to have any insight as to what happened the night her friend went missing. As Grey begins to dig, she starts confronting all of La Cachette’s secrets, such as the death of the twins, Ember and Orli, thirteen years earlier and the legend of the local bogeyman, Dempsey Fontenot.

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

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

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

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

Hot Cajun Shrimp Dip

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

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

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

Muffuletta Crostini

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

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

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


Never Saw You Coming (YA) by Erin Hahn: Book Review

Never Saw You Coming (YA) by Erin Hahn: Book Review

Meg Hennessey has lived cautiously for all of her eighteen years. She’s never kissed a boy, never cussed, and never drank. She covers her shoulders (sometimes with fairy wings) so boys don’t have impure thoughts, participates in the youth group praise band, and babysits for spending money. When she learns that she has been kept so sheltered because her own mother became pregnant as the result of a one-night stand at a youth group event (not something one hears everyday!), she cancels her gap-year plans to head north to Marquette, Michigan to meet the family of her late birth father.

Micah Allen ended up in the spotlight at age thirteen when his pastor father infamously fell from grace. Viral videos featured Micah insisting on his father’s innocence. He quickly learned that his father was guilty of embezzlement and adultery and that the church that had helped to raise him could quickly turn on his mother, his younger sisters, and on him. At nineteen, Micah has given up on the church but not on God. He has made friends who have helped through hard times, but he still dreads being recognized as “that pastor’s kid.” When Micah meets Meg, he recognizes that same blend of faith and cynicism that he possesses.

There is a lot of contrast in NSYC, in terms of innocence and experience. The love story is very happy and sweet. The only times there is serious angst between Meg and Micah is when there are external forces at work, such a malicious, gossipy church mom. All of their conflict is essentially created for them by the adults in their lives. But the challenges that face both Meg and Micah are anything but simple and easy. Both teens have come to a place where they have decided they love Christ, but they aren’t so sure about the church. As they try to figure out their place in the world, they struggle with who they want to be versus who others want them to be. Meg is told she needs to be the poster child for purity for the teen girls in her uncle’s church, while Micah is urged to forgive his father, who is scheduled to be released on parole. And the scene where Micah finally encounters his father after his release from prison is intense. And infuriating.

This is a great read for current youth group members and youth group alumni, whether they loved their youth group or barely survived it. But while the conflict initially seems specific to church teens, the issues are cultural. The purity culture that Meg struggles with is strongly associated with the evangelical church, but its influence is wider and is reflected in public school dress codes that enforce the notion that developing girls are “distractions.” Micah’s disillusionment with the adults around him is common in teens spotting the human weaknesses in their parents and in adult leaders.

I’m a bit disappointed that this came out during the pandemic as Erin Hahn is a local author (Ann Arbor), and I would have loved to meet her at a book event. Perhaps post-pandemic, I will have a chance.

If you enjoy Never Saw You Coming, here are some other novels about faith that you might like:


Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney Stevens. This one is so good. A smart and thoughtful look at purity culture and homophobia in modern youth groups. I reviewed this in my previous blog.

Small Town Sinners by Melissa Walker. A bit more niche than Never Saw You Coming and Dress Codes for Small Towns, this one might be a bit baffling to someone who was not raised fundamentalist. However, if you grew up in a “Purity culture is my secondary religion and Halloween is of the devil” home, you’ll totally get this one.

Adult novels:

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. This story of three generations of ministers, all of them products of their time, might be the most beautiful American novel about Christianity. This is actually the first of a series, but I think this novel is the best one.

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. The simplest description is this is the story of a valuable Jewish volume (the Sarajevo Haggadah) rescued from destruction by a Muslim, but it’s really a multi-century saga of faith and history.

Caleb’s Crossing, also by Geraldine Brooks. A fascinating view of early colonial American thought, Caleb’s Crossing tells the story of those outskirts of Puritan culture and power: Bethia, a minister’s daughter, who is more intellectual than her groomed-for-the-ministry brother but never feels the conviction of her father’s faith and Caleb, the brilliant son of a Wampanoag chieftain, who the Puritans have claimed for both mascot and trophy.

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. This is a vibrant and female-centered telling of the life of Dinah, who is portrayed as merely the disgraced daughter of Jacob in the book of Genesis. It is impossible to neatly sum up the beauty of this book.

And one nonfiction book:

Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free by Linda Kay Klein. Klein conducted a series of interviews with young women who grew up in purity culture about how it continued to affect them in adulthood. I also reviewed this one on my previous blog.

Plenty by Hannah Howard: book review and book club menu

Plenty by Hannah Howard: book review and book club menu

As this memoir is a celebration of women in the food industry, this image indirectly features a woman in food. The vegan shortbread cookies are from Bohemian Bakeshop, a Detroit business owned by Jessica Chaney.

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.

While Plenty examines all the barriers that are unique to women in the industry, it is ultimately a celebration of food, family, female friendships, and chasing dreams. The women she profiles are interesting and diverse, and all of them are people she befriended while at work. She writes about a young chef just starting out, a chef who tired of the sexual harassment in the industry and transitioned to teaching, and woman who became a barge captain in the Bordeaux region, first by default and then by choice. I think the most inspiring story to me was that of Eat Offbeat, an organization which employs refugee women with no previous professional cooking experience but who are talented home cooks willing to learn to cook for a living. Howard also addresses what happened to all of these women during the pandemic, as they adapted to the changing industry.

I think Plenty would be enjoyed by foodies and by women who work in male-dominated industries. It would also be a natural book club selection, because it lends itself to sharing stories about work, family food traditions, and motherhood. If either eating disorders or miscarriage are triggering topics for you, you might want to pass on this. Miscarriage is part of my own story, so I may have spent that part of the book curled up with a box of tissues, crying for both her and me. No regrets for reading it, but I did want to offer a warning to anyone who may need it.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of Plenty on Amazon First Reads. It did not affect my review as I only review books I recommend.

Hannah Howard describes herself as a “writer and cheese maven” on her website, so the only acceptable food offering for a book club is a cheese plate or a charcuterie board. September is a great time to add some fall flavors into the mix, such as figs, pears, apples, and grapes.

Recommended book club menu:

Charcuterie board: One soft cheese and one firm cheese (brie and cheddar pictured), pear slices, figs, sugared prosecco grapes (recipe below), roasted grapes (pictured on brie, recipe also below), baguette, crackers, macarons

Cocktail: French 75 (recipe below)

Mocktail: Apple ginger mocktail (recipe below)

Sugared Prosecco Grapes

The first thing you need to know is that you’ll be draining most of the prosecco, so don’t use a fancy bottle. A $5 bottle works just fine here. Also note my lack of measurements here. You don’t need any terribly specific ratios here as the grapes are merely soaking in the wine. If you are preparing this for a crowd (a couple lbs. of grapes), then you’ll want to use a full bottle of wine. If you are using a small bunch of grapes like I did, you’ll use a third of a bottle at most.

  • White grapes
  • Prosecco
  • Granulated sugar
  1. Place grapes in a bowl. Pour enough prosecco over to cover the grapes completely.
  2. Cover and refrigerate overnight (or several hours).
  3. Drain grapes, but don’t dry completely.
  4. Pour sugar into a baking sheet. Add grapes and roll in sugar until coated evenly.
  5. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Variation: Prosecco grapes can also be frozen. I didn’t do so here, as this is a fall-themed board, but frozen grapes would be delicious for an outdoor summer party. If you freeze them, just make sure to do so in a single layer so they don’t stick together like a sparkling bundle of disappointment.

Roasted Grapes

Grapes may be a fruit we are accustomed to eating only raw, but that’s a sad underestimation of this delicious fruit.

  • Red grapes
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • Rosemary (optional)
  1. Preheat the oven to 425.
  2. Toss grapes on a baking sheet with olive oil, salt, pepper, and rosemary (if using).
  3. Bake for 25 minutes.

French 75

First things first. Do you have simple syrup in your house? If you don’t, it’s easy enough to make at home, but you need to make it a bit in advance as it needs to cool before you use it. I’d recommend making it while your grapes are roasting. Just add equal amounts sugar and water in a small saucepan. (I used 1/3 cup of each.) Heat on low and stir until sugar is completely dissolved. Let it cool.

Per glass:

  • 1 ounce gin
  • 1/2 ounce lemon juice
  • 1/2 ounce simple syrup
  • 2 ounces sparkling wine
  1. Combine gin, lemon juice, and simple syrup in a cocktail shaker with ice.
  2. Shake and then strain into a champagne glass.
  3. Top with sparkling wine.

Apple Ginger Mocktail

  • Apple cider (I used honeycrisp)
  • Ginger ale
  1. Fill a glass with ice halfway with cider.
  2. Add the same amount of ginger ale.
  3. Enjoy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For a dry meeting:

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

For a book club that serves alcohol:

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

Cranberry Brie Bites:

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

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

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

Nutella Dip:

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

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

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