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.

2022 New Releases: Thrillers

2022 New Releases: Thrillers

In the earliest days of the pandemic, I had two obsessions. One was my dedication to finally becoming a runner, using the Couch to 5K app. The second was devouring thriller after thriller, ignoring all of the literary books in my To Be Read pile. Now, more than two years later, running isn’t a part of my life, but I still love the distraction of a good thriller, even though I have added more literary books back into my reading routine. (I try not to examine too closely what this reading preference says about me.)

These four books were all released between January 2022 and March 2022. 

The Book of Cold Cases by Simone St. James

Claire Lake, Oregon may be small, but it’s a hot spot for crime. In 1977, the town was shocked by the Lady Killer Murders, but the police’s only suspect, wealthy heiress Beth Greer, was acquitted. In the late nineties, a child murderer came to town, but Shea Collins was the girl who got away and provided the police with the information to lock up her abductor. In 2017, Shea is a 29-year-old receptionist who also runs a successful true crime blog called the Book of Cold Cases. When Shea encounters Beth at her job, she asks Beth for an interview. To her surprise, Beth, who has a history of denying interview requests, says yes. But Shea is uncertain if Beth has picked her to clear her name, or if she has become a serial killer’s latest prey. I really enjoyed this. The characters were well developed, and the Pacific Northwest small town setting functioned almost as a character itself. There was a paranormal aspect that I didn’t love, as I think the same story could have been told without it, but that’s a minor complaint with an otherwise well-crafted thriller. I think this will be popular with both thriller readers and fans of true crime podcasts.

Reckless Girls by Rachel Hawkins

Lux needs an escape. She dropped out of college to care for her mother who was battling cancer, and after years of caregiving, she finds all of her peers have moved on without her, completing college, starting careers, while Lux has nothing but medical debt and a string of low paying jobs. When she meets Nico, who has a boat and a dream of sailing the world, Lux leaves her life behind to travel with him. At their first stop in Maui, they learn that Nico’s boat requires expensive repairs, delaying their plans until two college girls arrive with enough money to repair the boat and fund their travels if Nico and Lux take them to Meroe Island. When the four arrive in Meroe Island, an isolated island with a mysterious and violent history, they find a wealthy young couple already there. The six travelers become fast friends, partying with a seemingly endless supply of alcohol, until a seventh person arrives, disturbing their dynamic and bringing old secrets to the surface. Of these four books, Reckless Girls is the most escapist read, a definite beach vacation book. It is more disturbing (on a psychological level) than the average thriller, and it reminded me more of Lord of the Flies and The Beach than it did other 21st century thrillers. Reckless Girls makes a unique contribution to the genre.

A Flicker in the Dark by Stacy Willingham (debut)

When Chloe Davis was twelve, six teenage girls from her small Louisiana town went missing. While going through her parents’ closet one day, Chloe found trophies from the missing girls. With this evidence, her father was sent to prison for the crimes. Twenty years later, Chloe is successful on the surface–a psychologist who is engaged to be married–but the few people who know her closely know she is traumatized from the events of her past. As Chloe prepares for her wedding, teenage girls begin to go missing in her new city of Baton Rouge. Like many thrillers these days, this one deals with PTSD and the substance use disorders that frequently go hand in hand with trauma. I feel that drunk/high narrators are becoming a bit cliché in thrillers, but Willingham did an excellent job in conveying Chloe’s trauma and fear. When all of the characters begin to look untrustworthy to Chloe, they also look untrustworthy to the reader, who is also questioning what is real and what is performance. Most mystery readers will be able to work out whodunit, but the story unraveled with enough complexity and surprises that I wasn’t upset that I had worked out the solution, when that’s usually a deal breaker for me. While this is not groundbreaking for the genre, it’s a fun read and a solid debut.

The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley

When Jess loses her job in questionable circumstances, she leaves Brighton for Paris, as her brother Ben is the only person who can help her. But when Jess arrives, she finds her brother is not in his fancy Paris apartment and all of his posh neighbors are very reluctant to talk about him. Foley’s newest release is similar to her earlier works, The Guest List and The Hunting Party, in that there are multiple narrators and revelations are carefully distributed throughout the novel. While the two earlier thrillers had And There Were None vibes with their isolated settings, The Paris Apartment has gothic notes with gritty secrets, ominous architecture, and costume parties crossed with Rear Window voyeurism. The reviews have been very mixed among Foley fans. I was one of the ones who loved it. I was a bit unsure about it in the beginning and was bothered by the unlikeability of the characters, but then as secrets kept being revealed, I grew invested and appreciated the new and grittier direction of her work. I found it to be complex and enjoyable.

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.

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.

Enjoy!

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:

YA:

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.

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.

Summer Reading List, 2021

Summer Reading List, 2021

The Puma Years by Laura Coleman (memoir)



After quitting a series of jobs, twenty-something Laura Coleman decides to backpack in Bolivia. Growing lonely in her travels, she volunteers at a wildlife sanctuary in the Amazon that rehabilitates animals who were rescued from zoos and illegal pet trades. Initially her goal is to not quit before her three months are up, but the questionable living conditions and Hagrid the outhouse-dwelling giant spider test her resolution and her fellow volunteers predict the shy and bookish Laura won’t last. Then Laura is assigned to work with Wayra, a tempestuous puma who longs to be wild even as she has no idea how to be wild. In attempting to rescue Wayra, Laura rescues herself and finds a passion for animal rights and environmental justice.

Coleman is an excellent writer. She portrays both the beautiful and the grotesque so vividly that you feel that you are there in Bolivia with her. I picked this book almost whimsically (“Pretty cover! I want to read a book set in South America!”), but it was a joy to watch Laura move from being a shy recent university graduate disillusioned with adulthood to a strong woman passionate about environmental justice who trusts herself to make a difference. I definitely had “What am I even doing with my life?” thoughts while reading this. I strongly recommend this memoir. Some scenes are a bit gritty, as Coleman does not romanticise the Amazon, but much of it is beautiful. And you will definitely love Wayra as much as Coleman does.

Disclosure: I received a free Kindle copy through Amazon First Reads.


The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris (novel)

1983: Kendra Rae Phillips should have been on top of the world. A rising star at Wagner Books, Kendra is the editor of the book of the year, Burning Heart. Written by a Black woman and edited by another Black woman, Burning Heart is all that the literary world can speak about. But Kendra becomes involved in a scandal and flees her life in New York City, disappearing from public life altogether.

2018: Editorial assistant Nella Rogers pursued and acquired a job at Wagner Books to follow in the footsteps of Kendra Rae Phillips, her role model. Once there, she is disappointed by the lack of diversity. She is the only Black employee and people seem to get nervous when Kendra Rae’s name comes up. Nella gets involved with diversity initiatives, only to learn that no one wants to participate. When Hazel is hired to be newest editorial assistant, Nella is grateful to no longer be the only Black employee. While Hazel seems friendly, Nella begins to suspect her work is being sabotaged as Hazel quickly becomes the most sought after employee at Wagner.

This debut novel is fabulous. I kept anxiously trying to work out the twist to this novel because I knew there had to be a big one. Well, there was a big twist, and the hints to the twist are present very early on, but I went down the wrong path entirely because I read too many Ruth Ware and Lucy Foley books, and this is definitely not one of those books. Initially, it’s a bit Mean Girls in an office setting and addresses everything from the politics of natural hair to code switching to half-hearted workplace diversity initiatives. And the ending cannot be called anything but horror. Its clever and page-turning and it’s unlike anything else I have read.

Disclosure: Purchased my own copy.

Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid (novel)

Every August, the four Riva siblings, estranged children of musician Mick Riva, hold a large party. In 1983, the Riva siblings await the party with a combination of dread and hope. Nina, a surfer/supermodel and the eldest of the Riva family, has been in all of the tabloids after being left by her tennis pro husband and is in no mood to have half of Malibu in her home. Jay is putting all of his attention into making sure his love interest attends, if only to distract himself from news he’d rather not think about. Hud is dreading telling Jay a secret that could destroy their close relationship. And Kit is determined to solve the problem of her non-existent love life for good. If sibling drama is not enough, an abundance of drugs ensures the 1983 guests are the rowdiest bunch yet, and by morning, the entire mansion is in flames.

Taylor Jenkins Reid books are pretty much the definition of a beach read. Glamorous characters, glamorous situations, yet well written enough to deserve your time. And I believe Malibu Rising may be her best yet. It’s about how fame and money changed both a family and Malibu. The story spans from the fifties when Mick Riva met June, the mother of the siblings, in Malibu when it was just a simple fishing village that considered itself far from the glamour and money of Hollywood to the eighties when the Hollywood elite had long since descended upon Malibu.

I was pleasantly surprised to find the Riva siblings less obnoxiously privileged than I expected. Don’t get me wrong, they are privileged and I initially took a strong dislike to everyone but the feisty Kit. But while the Rivas are quite rich and accomplished in 1983, they were abandoned by their famous father and had to make their own way. They did inherit a struggling restaurant after the death of their mother, which ensured their survival, even though they were too young to effectively run it. In reading about their upbringing, I loved all of the siblings, especially Nina who was the default mother of the family.

Disclosure: Purchased my own copy.

The Guncle by Steven Rowley (novel)

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

The Guncle is one of those books that seems like a fluffy beach read on first glance. And it is very much a beach read, but it isn’t overly fluffy. At risk of sounding odd, what this reminded me of was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Plot wise, they are very different books, but in tone, they are more similar than dissimilar. Both books are laugh out loud funny, and both contain isolated main characters who have very little filter in what they say. However, both books deal seriously with loss and trauma and are set apart by their excellent characterization and writing.

Disclosure: I purchased my own copy.