Monday, February 8, 2016

The Evening Spider by Emily Arsenault

The Evening Spider by Emily Arsenault
Published by William Morrow ISBN 9780062379306
Trade paperback, $15.99, 400 pages

A few years ago, I read Emily Arsenault's novel What Strange Creatures and loved the brother/sister sibling relationship at its core. Her latest novel, The Evening Spider, has a sibling relationship in it as well, although that is not the central issue of the story as it was in What Strange Creatures.

The inspiration for this story came from the author hearing what she thought was human voice over her daughter's baby monitor shushing the baby. She combined this with an interest in the true story of the murder of a woman in the 1800s, a woman she believed to be an ancestor.

The Evening Spider introduces us to Abby, married to Chad, and new mom to baby Lucy, who has moved into an old house in the small town of Haverton, Massachusetts. Abby hears a voice over Lucy's baby monitor that sounds like someone is shushing her baby.

This unnerves Abby, and she does a little research about the previous owners of the house. She discovers that there is a diary from Frances Barnett, who once owned the house with her husband, Matthew, a lawyer.

Abby reads the diary and becomes fascinated with Frances, especially the letters Frances wrote to her brother Harry from a lunatic asylum Frances had been sent to by her husband. Frances was a new mom too, like Abby, and she became obsessed with a murder trial that her brother had a connection to.

As Frances' story unfolds through her letters, Abby tries to learn why Frances was committed to a hospital. She turns to the head of the local historical society for more information and a local medium to see if her home is haunted by Frances or someone else.

The story took awhile to get going, but once it does, it intrigues the reader. I found so many layers to this psychological suspense, including an incident that happened to Abby in college that may color her actions in the present.

Frances is a captivating character. She loves science, and her interest in how arsenic works gets her into trouble. She wasn't a traditional housewife with traditional interests in cooking and sewing, and that made people suspect of her.

I also found it surprising that in 1885 forensic science played such a big role in the murder trial. I would have thought that a recent phenomenon, but the lawyers used detailed forensic information from respected scientists to help prove their cases. (I hope this doesn't mean we'll see a new CSI:1885 series.)

The Evening Spider is a novel about obsessions- Frances for the murder trial and Abby's obsession with Frances. It features interesting, well-developed characters (just like in Arsenault's previous book), and the ending of the story is a surprise to the reader.

Fans of John Searles' Help For The Haunted will enjoy The Evening Spider. They both involve mediums, a haunted house and taut psychological suspense. And although I was a new mom over twenty years ago, Arsenault brings back those memories and fears of new motherhood vividly in this story.

I highly recommend The Evening Spider. It's a creepy, taut, suspenseful story that will keep you up at night reading to the end.

My review of What Strange Creatures is here.
My review of John Searles' Help For The Haunted is here.

Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on Emily's tour. The rest of Emily Arsenault's stops are:

Tuesday, January 26th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
Wednesday, January 27th: The Reader’s Hollow
Wednesday, January 27th: Kahakai Kitchen
Thursday, January 28th: A Bookworm’s World
Friday, January 29th: JulzReads
Monday, February 1st: A Literary Vacation
Tuesday, February 2nd: FictionZeal
Thursday, February 4th: Jenn’s Bookshelves
Friday, February 5th: Kritters Ramblings
Monday, February 8th: bookchickdi
Wednesday, February 10th: From the TBR Pile
Thursday, February 11th: Book Hooked Blog
Friday, February 12th: Peeking Between the Pages

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Weekend Cooking- A Diner Food Kind of Week

This post is part of Beth Fish Reads' Weekend Cooking.  If you have anything related to food, cookbook reviews, novel or non-fiction book reviews, recipes, movie reviews, etc., head over to Beth Fish Reads and add your post. Or, if you want to read food related posts, head over to read what some interesting people have to say about food.

I didn't cook much when we were in Longboat Key last week, so I made up for it this week. My husband loves what he calls "Truck Driver Food" or "Diner Food", so I pulled out my old cookbooks and found some things I hoped he would like.

First up was Mr. Food's Oven Beef Stew, which I used to make for the family during those long, cold, Central New York winters. I found the recipe in my old standby cookbook, the St. Joseph's School Cooking With Class Cookbook, which was a fundraiser for my sons' Catholic elementary and middle school back in the day. The convenient thing about that cookbook is that I gave them a lot of my favorite recipes and now I have them all collated in one place for easy reference.

It's an easy dish to make, but it takes a good couple of hours in the oven so this is something I make on my day off.
Mr. Food's Oven Beef Stew (photo from Mr. Food's website)

Mr. Food's Oven Beef Stew
2 lbs. stew beef
4 medium potatoes, cut into 1 inch chunks
6 medium carrots, cut into 1/2 inch chunks
1 medium onion chopped
2 cups of tomato juice
 1 cup of water
1 tsp. sugar
2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
3 Tbsp. quick cooking tapioca

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat a 9x13 pan with non-stick spray (coat well!). In the dish, combine the beef, potatoes, carrots and onion, mix well. In a large bowl, combine tomato juice, water, sugar, salt, pepper and tapioca. Pour over beef and vegetables, cover tightly with foil and bake for 2 hours or until beef and vegetables are tender. (This can be put together ahead of time and refrigerated. Bake 2 1/2 to 3 hours.) You can also brown beef before you put into casserole dish if you prefer. We serve it over rice.
The link to the recipe on Mr. Food's website is here.

On Tuesday I made another standby from the cookbook (but not one that I gave them), Chicken Supreme, which I hadn't made in forever. It was a good dish to make on a workday because it only takes an hour in the oven and the prep time is five minutes. It uses a can of cream soup, which I'm not crazy about, but it works for this dish.

Chicken Supreme
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 can of cream of chicken soup
1/2 cup white wine
4 slices of swiss cheese
Box of stuffing mix (Pepperidge Farm, Stove Top, etc.)
1/2 cup of butter, melted

Place chicken in a baking dish. Cover each piece with a slice of cheese. Mix wine and soup together, pour over chicken. Put stuffing straight from the box on top of it all, top with melted butter and bake at 375 degrees for one hour.

The last truck driver dish I made this week was a new one- Slow Cooker Salisbury Steak. Again, it was perfect for a workday meal. I stopped on my way home to my favorite grocery store, Agata & Valentina, picked up a container of homemade mashed potatoes,  grilled asparagus and a strawberry millefoglie for dessert and it was simple meal that my husband raved about. There's even leftovers for Saturday's lunch. I found this one on Pinterest, from Saved With Pennies.
Slow Cooker Salisbury Steak

Do you have any diner food recipes you enjoy? Share them in comments below.

Friday, January 29, 2016

On Broadway- Hamilton

The hottest ticket in entertainment is Broadway's Hamilton. Created by writer/director/composer/actor/genius (yes, he won a McArthur Genius Grant so he is an actual genius) Lin-Manuel Miranda, who won a Tony for Best Musical for his In the Heights, it is the most creative, amazing piece of theater I've ever seen.

Miranda read historian Ron Chernow's biography Hamilton while on vacation and thought that it would make a great hip-hop Broadway musical. Some people may have thought he had sunstroke, but his creative mind set to work and the result is a brilliant show that is sure to sweep this year's Tony awards. and go down in history as a game-changer in theater.

Miranda brings to vivid life the historical people most of us barely know much about at the time of the American Revolution. Alexander Hamilton was an intelligent, ambitious young orphan from the Caribbean island of Nevis when he came to America.

He graduated from King's College in New York and became a lawyer. But he was passionate about the coming revolution and after writing many pamphlets and tracts encouraging revolution, he became General George Washington's right-hand man and eventual first Secretary of the Treasury.

In addition to his many accomplishments, we see Hamilton's personal life. He married Eliza Schuyler, the daughter of a wealthy, prominent man, and he had a close relationship with her sister Angelica.

The story is narrated by his frenemy Aaron Burr, whom we know eventually killed Hamilton in a duel.

The cast is amazing, from Miranda as Hamilton to Leslie Odom Jr. as Burr. (He has a stunning voice.) Angelica is portrayed by a luminescent Renee Elise Goldsberry, who captures the stage whenever she is on it. Phillipa Soo stands out as Hamilton's loyal wife Eliza.

Christopher Jackson plays George Washington as we know him- a large presence and a strong leader who depended on Hamilton and at the same time called him out when Hamilton needed it. Daveed Diggs is fantastic as both LaFayette and has a memorable turn as a Thomas Jefferson who is not as stuffy here as history books make him out to be.

Jonathan Groff should order his tux now for the Tonys as his performance as a petulant King George II brought down the house in each of his four short scenes. He is a shoo-in for Best Supporting Actor and is sure to be up against many of his co-stars.

I'd call Hamilton a hip-hop opera, as it feels like it could be at home at the Met. The subject matter is operatic, and this may well be the future of opera. The show is mostly sung, and the lyrics, using phrases we remember from history class, are ingenious. The performers in this show get quite a vocal workout. (Owning the soundtrack is a must so you can truly appreciate the words. Oh, those words.)

The choreography, costumes and staging perfectly complement this groundbreaking show. Tickets are extremely hard to come by (they are putting a new set of tickets on sale next week for November 2016- January 2017) but I cannot tell you much I loved this show. I loved history class in high school, and Miranda and company bring it to new, exciting, accessible life in Hamilton. If you see only one show on Broadway, this is the one to see.

The website for Hamilton is here.
For more Hamilton fun, check out #Ham4Ham videos posted on YouTube.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian

The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian
Published by Doubleday ISBN 97803855538893
Hardcover, $25.95, 336 pages

What I like about a new Chris Bohjalian book is that you know it's always going to be an intriguing story that tackles an important issue. He's dealt with such topics as mental illness (The Double Bind), domestic abuse (Secrets of Eden), the Armenian genocide (The Sandcastle Girls) and now the global sex slave trade in his gripping novel The Guest Room.

Kristine takes her eight-year-old daughter to visit her mother overnight in New York City while her husband Richard hosts a bachelor party for his n'er-do-well brother in their suburban home. She's not crazy about her immature brother-in-law Phillip and his friends, but Richard doesn't have many friends or go out much, so she hopes this will be a fun night for him.

Phillip's best friend Spencer arranges for two strippers to come to the house, but when they arrive, it's clear that these are the not the kind of women Richard envisioned. The two young women are more than strippers, they are prostitutes.

Things get way out of hand, and Richard ends up in the guest room with one of the young women, Alexandra, about to make a very bad mistake. It turns out that these two women were kidnapped and forced into sex slavery and when the women kill their bodyguards/captors in his house, Richard's life turns upside down.

He has to tell his wife, who has to tell their young daughter. The lurid story is all over the news, Richard is forced to take a leave of absence from his lucrative job and they can't go back into their house as it is a crime scene. It is a nightmare.

The story is also told from Alexandra's viewpoint. After losing her father, she is tricked into leaving her mother, believing she is going to study dance in Russia. The man who was her benefactor became her nightmare. At the age of fourteen she was forced into prostitution. She was beaten and raped repeatedly until she realized there was no way out.

Bohjalian describes in graphic detail the brutality these young women are subjected to. It is horrifying to read on the page, I can't imagine the actual reality of it. For five long years Alex is locked away, forced to service men.

At the age of nineteen, she and three other young women are sent to New York where they can make more money for the Russian mobsters. One of them is killed by their captors, and then they go to the party at Richard's, where Alexandra's friend decides to change her fate.

The story is riveting, and The Guest Room is definitely a page-turning nail-biter. As Alexandra is on the run, trying to avoid the Russian mobsters and police looking for her, and Richard tries to put his life back together, their stories collide.

The ending is shocking and will send you for a loop. The Guest Room is just heartbreaking, and the fact that this goes on right here is mind-numbing. I highly recommend The Guest Room, it combines a sad story with a thriller's pace and you'll race through it. And if your husband asks to host a bachelor party in your home, just say no.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Forgotten Room by Karen White, Beatriz Williams and Lauren Willig

The Forgotten Room by Karen White, Beatriz Williams and Lauren Willig
Published by NAL ISBN 9780451474629
Hardcover, $26, 384 pages
Reprinted from the Citizen:
Writers Karen White (“The Sound of Glass”), Lauren Willig (The “Pink Carnation” series of historical fiction) and Beatriz Williams (“Along the Infinite Sea”) are all successful romance novelists on their own. Recently, they teamed up to write a book together, “The Forgotten Room,” in which the authors each take a different time setting then connect their stories together. 
It begins in 1944, where young Dr. Kate Schuyler races to an incoming ambulance to find a seriously injured soldier. Capt. Ravanel was injured in Europe in the war and placed on a boat to set sail for New York City to a hospital there for better care.
The hospital on East 69th Street that Dr. Schuyler works in used to be a family’s mansion during the Gilded Age, when money flowed freely until the Great Depression hit, and the family’s mansion was sold and eventually became a hospital.
Capt. Ravenel is delirious with fever, calling Dr. Schuyler by the name Victorine, and recognizes the ruby necklace that Kate wears around her neck. Kate doesn’t know Capt. Ravenel, although his last name sounds familiar.
In 1892, we meet young Olive Van Alan, who works as a maid in the mansion on East 69th Street for the wealthy Pratt family. While it appears that Olive is just another poor young working class woman, she has ulterior motives.
Olive’s father was the architect who built the Pratt mansion. It was his masterpiece, a showcase that he hoped would make his career and get him many more jobs. But Mr. Pratt was a dishonest man, and he refused to pay Olive’s father for his work, bankrupting him and resulting in her father’s death.
Olive was determined to find vindication for her father in Pratt’s paperwork. She would find proof that her father’s work was not unacceptable and poor, as Pratt claimed. She would get justice for her father.
But Olive didn’t count on falling in love with Pratt’s artistic son Harry. Olive was warned to stay away from the young master of the house, that it would only mean trouble for everyone, but Harry became infatuated with Olive, and a torrid affair began.
In 1920, Lucy Young takes a room in the attic of a mansion on East 69th Street, the former Pratt Mansion. She secures a job at the firm that handles the affairs of the Pratt family. The junior partner in charge of the Pratt account is the stepson of Prunella Pratt, the last remaining member of the famous Pratts, and sister of Harry.
Before long, Lucy is now working closely with Phillip Schuyler, Prunella’s stepson. Lucy can’t believe her luck. She got the job at the firm hoping to get an answer to a very important question: Could Lucy be the illegitimate daughter of Harry Pratt?
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Harry Pratt disappeared a long time ago, and his family had no idea where he went or if he was still alive. Lucy hopes that if she can find Harry Pratt, she can find the answer to her real heritage.
Lucy becomes Phillip Schuyler’s valued assistant, and when he asks her to entertain a client, a Mr. Ravenel from Charleston, we have a connection that will be repeated in 1944, in the Pratt mansion that is now a hospital.
White, Williams and Willig do a masterful job creating three distinct worlds that intersect in the end. Each takes a storyline, and immerses the reader in their time period. We can feel the distinct delineation between the classes in Olive’s story, as the opulence of the Pratt family contrasts with Olive and her widowed mother, who tries to marry Olive off to the nice bakery owner.
Lucy Young is a career woman living in a room in a woman’s boarding house in 1920 under the watchful eye of a woman who deems it her goal in life to keep her boarders' virtue intact. Lucy came from a family who owned a small shop, but she uses her education to make a better life for herself.
And then we get to Dr. Kate Schuyler, a doctor in 1944, an unusual occupation for a woman at that time. Kate has to put up with the sexual harassment of her boss, and back then the only method to handle that was to avoid the man at all costs.
The way the authors seamlessly weave their stories together is beautifully done, and when the resolution to the story comes, it is a satisfying conclusion. “The Forgotten Room” is the perfect book to curl up with on a snowy day and lose yourself in a wonderful story.
Grade- A-

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Weekend Cooking- Two Sarasota Area Restaurants

This post is part of Beth Fish Reads' Weekend Cooking.  If you have anything related to food, cookbook reviews, novel or non-fiction book reviews, recipes, movie reviews, etc., head over to Beth Fish Reads and add your post. Or, if you want to read food related posts, head over to read what some interesting people have to say about food.

The weather is very bad back in New York City, but we are safe and (slightly) warmer in Sarasota. We had two sets of visitors at our vacation home in Longboat Key this week, and we tried two new restaurants that were both winners.

Mediterraneo is an authentic Italian restaurant in the Historic Downtown District of Sarasota, right across the street from the beautiful Regal 20 Theaters. Two of our friends who live here in Sarasota highly recommended Mediterraneo, so we decided to try it and we were so happy we are returning again tonight with our new visitors.

I started with a Spinach salad, which had pears, pecorino cheese and toasted walnuts on top. The waiter brought the table a bottle of balsamic vinegar and a bottle of olive oil to dress the salad individually. It was very fresh and light.
Spinach Salad 

For my entree I chose the Spaghetti alla Gricia, which had pancetta and cheese mixed in with the pasta water to make a sinfully delicious dinner. I savored every bite. I could only eat half it was so filling. One of our dining companions chose the lamb shank, and he was the envy of many in our group.

The service was wonderful, our server was friendly and knowledgable, able to answer all of our questions and provide some terrific suggestions. The room was a little noisy, it reminded me of a Manhattan restaurant in that regard, and the tables were pretty close together as it is a smaller dining room and a very popular restaurant. I highly recommend Mediterraneo.

Last night we stayed on Longboat Key and tried Euphemia Haye, a local landmark. The restaurant stands out from the road with its beautiful landscaping filled with lovely tiny white lights. That is continued into the restaurant, located in an historic old cottage. It's perfect for a romantic evening out.

Our server here was also friendly and gave us an overview of the menu, such as the dishes they are best known for, including a Crisp Roast Duckling whose presentation was pretty spectacular. (Two neighboring tables ordered it.)

The banana bread on the table was so fabulous, I had two pieces. I chose the appetizer special, Quattro Formaggio, a small slice of a savory cheesecake of ricotta and three other cheeses, topped with bacon, sour cream and green onions, served with a side of greens. It was delicious!
Quattro Formaggio

The other diners had a Caesar salad, which was very good, and a Waldorf salad that looked great too. I chose the Gamberetti with Capellini, shrimp with garlic and herbs in a white wine sauce over egg pasta. It was very light and refreshing after my heavier appetizer.

My husband had the Filet Mignon, served on a potato pancake that he enjoyed. For dessert, we shared a Banana Cream Pie and our other diners shared a Chocolate Mousse that they raved about.

Chef Ray Arpke came around to each table to greet everyone, which is such a nice touch. The ambience is so relaxing, and next time we will be sure to visit the Haye Loft upstairs, which serves lighter fare and has live music each night.

Both restaurants were winners, and we will be visiting them often. Reservations are recommended for both.

Mediterraneo's website is here.
Euphemia Haye's website is here.

To all who are in the path of Jonas, please stay safe and warm.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Restaurant Critic's Wife by Elizabeth LaBan

The Restaurant Critic's Wife by Elizabeth LaBan
Published by Lake Union Publishing ISBN 978-1477817766
Hardcover, $24.95, 306 pages

Writers are told to write what they know, and Elizabeth LaBan has taken that to heart in her novel The Restaurant Critic's Wife.  Like her protagonist Lila, LaBan is married to the food critic for a large Philadelphia newspaper. (Luckily, LaBan says that the character of the critic is much crazier than her actual husband.)

Lila is a high-powered executive for a large hotel chain. She specializes in crisis management and public relations, traveling the globe and solving problems with aplomb. After she breaks up with her long-time boyfriend, she finds herself in New Orleans for work when she meets Sam.

Sam and Lila fall deeply in love. Lila becomes pregnant and they decide to marry. They are very happy together, and then Sam gets the opportunity he has been waiting for- a job as a restaurant critic at a Philadelphia newspaper.

By now, Lila and Sam have two young children- Hazel, a toddler, and baby Henry. Sam is totally engrossed in his job, taking it very seriously. He is overly protective of his anonymity, believing that if anyone knew who he was, he could not do his job properly.

This unfortunately extends to Lila and the children. He doesn't want Lila to befriend any neighbors in case they own a restaurant. Lila's high school friend Maureen lives in town and also has two young children, but her husband owns a restaurant, so they cannot be friends.

He also doesn't want Lila to go back to work for the hotel, which Lila desperately wants to do. She felt in charge there, and being stuck at home and not allowed to have friends begins to frustrate her.

The one friend she makes is a waiter from a fancy restaurant, Sebastian. He is kind to Lila, and helpful with the children. But Sam flips out when he discovers their friendship because he feels Sebastian may be using Lila to get information.

It seems to me that Sam is too controlling and not very understanding of what he is asking of his wife. He acts like he works for the CIA, and that his identity must be protected for national security reasons.

The story was really captivating, especially for anyone who is a foodie; the descriptions of restaurants and the food are mouth-watering, and I liked the snippets of Sam's reviews that open the chapters. The characters are interesting and well- developed and I really adored Lila and rooted for her. Even the kids were engaging characters, which is sometimes difficult to do.

LeBan also does a wonderful job writing about marriage and parenthood, and the many compromises that must be made to make it all work. Her description of Lila's C-section and its aftermath were dead-on as well.

The one thing that felt a bit odd was that Lila was in a few gossip columns, outed as the restaurant critic's wife. How boring are things in Philadelphia that the restaurant critic's wife is constant fodder for gossip columns?

I recommend The Restaurant Critic's Wife to anyone who likes a good story about the compromises of marriage, as well as anyone who would like a peek into the world of restaurants.

Elizabeth LeBan's website is here.

Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on Elizabeth LeBan's tour. The rest of the stops are here:

Elizabeth LaBan’s TLC Book Tours TOUR STOPS:

Monday, January 4th: A Lovely Bookshelf on the Wall
Tuesday, January 5th: Why Girls are Weird
Wednesday, January 6th: All Roads Lead to the Kitchen
Thursday, January 7th: Bibliotica
Monday, January 11th: Kahakai Kitchen
Tuesday, January 12th: Chick Lit Central – author guest post
Wednesday, January 13th: Thoughts on This ‘n That
Thursday, January 14th: A Chick Who Reads
Friday, January 15th: Kritter’s Ramblings
Monday, January 18th: Books a la Mode – author guest post
Tuesday, January 19th: Bookchickdi
Wednesday, January 20th: I’m Shelf-ish
Thursday, January 21st: Patricia’s Wisdom
Friday, January 22nd: From the TBR Pile
Monday, January 25th: Read. Write. Repeat.
Tuesday, January 26th: Read Love Blog
Wednesday, January 27th: Mom in Love with Fiction
Thursday, January 28th: View from the Birdhouse
Monday, February 1st: Just Commonly
Wednesday, February 3rd: Thoughts from an Evil Overlord
Friday, February 5th: Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers