Author Archives: SoniaG

Part I: Family Friendly SPOOKY Films

I’m launching this year’s festivities with a few movies the whole family might enjoy. Please check the Parental Guide for each title. If you’re new to the blog and have younger children, you might check my 2016 post that includes solidly PG films, and don’t forget last year’s family viewing options. If you have tweens and teens interested in watching horror, the following options might appeal. Of course, you are the best judge of what your kids can or can’t handle in a scary film.

PLEASE NOTE: if you crave 500 jump scares per film, you may be disappointed by my recommendations. For more context on this, check out Chris Stuckmann’s youtube video, The Problem with Horror Movies Today–he makes a great point.

As usual, all film synopses are from imdb.com.


The Hole in the Ground (2019) — Rated R (not sure why?)
A young mother living in the Irish countryside with her son suspects his increasingly disturbing behavior is linked to a mysterious sinkhole in the forest, and fears he may not be her son at all. This is a bit slow to start, perhaps, but your patience will be rewarded. You’ll also be pleased to see the ubiquitous and always delightful James Cosmo. This film is both familiar and unique, and I loved the setting.
Watch the trailer / Options for viewing / IMDB Parental Guide /
Metascore: 63


Wait Till Helen Comes (2016) — Rated TV-14
When a reconstructed family moves to a converted church in the country, 14-year-old Molly, must save her new troubled step-sister from a dangerous relationship with the desperate ghost of a young girl. Raise your hand if you loved this book by Mary Downing Hahn! I’ve read it twice, and I thought this adaptation was pretty strong–spooky and tense without being gruesome, vulgar, or gratuitously violent. Great family fare, but not recommended for the little ones.
Watch the trailer / Options for Viewing / IMDB Parental Guide / No metascore


The Witch in the Window (2018) — Not rated
When Simon brings his twelve year-old son, Finn, to rural Vermont to help flip an old farmhouse, they encounter the malicious spirit of Lydia, a previous owner. And now with every repair they make – she’s getting stronger. This is my favorite of the family viewing options, and it’s one of my favorite spooky movies viewed this year. It’s so wonderfully character-driven and felt like I was getting a view into the world of a real family–a family I cared deeply about. Speaking of jump scares, there’s a well-earned one that made me squeak!
Watch the trailer / Options for viewing / IMDB Parental Guide / No Metascore

Perhaps best for 14-up due to language & violence:


The Dark (2005) — Rated R
In mourning over the tragic drowning of their daughter Sarah, James and Adèle are visited by Ebrill, a young girl who claims she died 60 years ago – and bears a startling resemblance to Sarah. Maria Bello and Sean Bean (!) star in this dark and creepy mystery set on the Welsh coast (but shot in Ireland, of course). It’s a good-looking film with lots of cool Gothic trappings, and yet a bit darker than the options listed above. Based on the novel Sheep, by Simon Maginn.
Watch the Trailer / Options for viewing / IMDB Parental Guide / No Metascore


Summer of ’84 — Not Rated
After suspecting that their police officer neighbor is a serial killer, a group of teenage friends spend their summer spying on him and gathering evidence, but as they get closer to discovering the truth, things get dangerous. Very reminiscent of Stranger Things, this film offers mystery and thrills without the paranormal content. Fair warning: crude language and teen boy humor abound, and the finale is grim.
Watch the Trailer / Options for Viewing / IMDB Parental Guide / Metascore: 57

Stay tuned for ghostly film recommendations!

Friday Favorites: The Harbor Springs Festival of the Book

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the 4th annual Harbor Springs Festival of the Book in Michigan–as a fan rather than an author. What a delight! Harbor is a lovely town on Lake Michigan, offering many restaurants and shops, including an indie bookstore. Turns out the town is full of friendly bibliophiles, too! For this post I’ll share a few highlights in hopes of attracting you to next year’s festival…


A high point for me was seeing Cathleen Schine in Saturday morning’s “Beautiful Messiness of Family” panel at the Lyric Theatre. (EVERY seat was full!) Back in the early 90s when I worked at an independent bookstore in Milwaukee, nearly the entire staff became obsessed with Schine’s The Love Letter. I gave it as a gift to just about everyone I knew–whether they wanted it or not! I so enjoyed chatting with Schine, and I’m very much looking forward to reading my signed copy of her latest novel, The Grammarians.


For lunch on Saturday we had tickets to “Sister Pie & Ice Cream with Lisa Ludwinski,” and no joke, each table shared a pie made from a recipe in Sister Pie: Recipes & Stories from a Big-Hearted Bakery in Detroit. Delicious! And now you know where to go for pie next time you’re in Detroit. (Above you see JK grinning at the prospect of tucking into our table’s Honey Lemon Meringue pie–wow, was it good!)


Sunday morning we enjoyed “Perspectives on the Female Voice” at the History Museum. This was a smaller, more intimate venue, and the panel felt more like a discussion group than a promotional event. All the panels were thoughtfully moderated, and no matter the topic or venue, everyone was friendly and helpful. I ended up chatting with so many charming people–and I’m a cranky introvert! There was just such a positive vibe at this festival.

Next we scurried back to the Lyric Theatre to see James Mustich talk about his new book, 1000 Books to Read Before You Die. I was delighted to learn that Mustich, a former bookseller, was the founder of A Common Reader. My mom and I used to read each edition cover-to-cover and add our favorites to birthday and Christmas wishlists. Mustich was a very engaging speaker, and later that night we enjoyed paging through his recommendations. (We spent more than an hour with the book and barely made a dent in his list.)


Our time at the Book Festival came to a stunning conclusion with a luncheon to celebrate Pria Krishna’s new cookbook, Indian-ish, with our meal prepared from Krishna’s recipes. Delicious food + inspirational talk from Krishna = a delicious and emotionally satisfying conclusion for this lovely festival.

AUTHORS! Keep your eye on this one–you may wish to submit your name for a panel at next year’s festival. You’ll LOVE it. Here’s the URL one more time: https://www.hsfotb.org

NOTE: the featured image at the top o this post is a photograph of my framed giclée of Mary Hramiec Hoffman’s “Lake Day,” which I purchased a few years ago in Harbor Springs. See www.hramiechoffman.com for more of her work.

September Tea and a Book: A Vicarage Family by Noel Streatfeild

Have you noticed how I tend to ping-pong between Gothic and Cozy stories? After last month’s gluttony of dark mysteries, I craved comfort, and thus I turned to Noel Streatfeild‘s fictionalized account of her childhood, A Vicarage Family.

Streatfeild is best known for her “Shoes” books–Ballet Shoes, Tennis Shoes, Circus Shoes, and more. The first time I heard of her was in the iconic scene from You’ve Got Mail in which a former indie bookstore owner (played by Meg Ryan) comes to the rescue of a clueless Fox Books employee by explaining what the “Shoes” books are. Prior to that, Streatfield was NOT on my radar. A few years ago I finally read (and loved) Ballet Shoes, but A Vicarage Family has possibly sparked a new obsession.

Goodreads synopsis:
A Vicarage Family is the first part in a fictionalized autobiography in which Noel Streatfeild tells the story of her own childhood, painting a poignant and vivid picture of daily life in an impoverished, genteel family in the years leading up to the First World War.

In the story there are three little girls – Isobel, the eldest, is pretty, gentle and artistic; Louise the youngest, is sweet and talented – and then there is Vicky, ‘the plain one’, the awkward and rebellious child who doesn’t fit in at school or at home. Growing up in a big family Vicky feels overlooked but gradually begins to realize that she might not be quite as untalented as she feels.


Noel Streatfeild in 1945. (I want an author photo like this!)

My thoughts:
In many ways A Vicarage Family, first published in 1963, reminded me of Little Women, but with a distinctly English flavor. The family is respectable but rather poor and a bit eccentric. The middle daughter, Vicky, is the author’s representation of herself as a child, and Streatfield pulls no punches in characterizing this younger self as moody and difficult. Vicky also is clever and creative, but she has a chip on her shoulder as the “awkward middle child” who is neither pretty nor sweet.

Lest you fear this will be a saccharine story, rest assured there is plenty of dramatic tension. The children squabble amongst themselves, of course, but generally band together against the grown ups. There’s animosity between Vicky and her mother, as well as with her teachers, because she is so very headstrong and equates compliance with shameful capitulation. One of the more fascinating tensions for me was between those of “high” and “low” leanings in the Anglican church. The children’s father is quite comfortable with pageantry and ritual, whereas their mother prefers a plainer style of worship, and this tension seems to strain their relationship throughout the story.

Above all, I wish to express that this book is quite lovable but also, in a very fascinating way, a bit prickly. I also want to mention that my copy is a 2018 Puffin edition with an introduction by Laura Clouting, historian at the Imperial War Museum in London. I obtained my copy from The Book Depository through Amazon.com.

I’m still trying to track down the sequels, Away from the Vicarage, and Beyond the Vicarage. In the meantime I plan to get my hands on Streatfeild’s Tea By the Nursery Fire.

Speaking of tea…


To pair with this book I’m suggesting an herbal tea that both children and adults might enjoy. Carytown Teas in Richmond, VA, offers a lovely organic/fair trade Blood Orange blend with “citrus fruits, tart hibiscus, rose hips and calendula petals.” (I visited this store last year and the owner was very knowledgable and helpful. Do peruse their offerings–there are so many lovely blends to choose from!) For the tea snack, I thought something simple would be nice–toast with sour cherry jam from Stonewall Kitchen, along with a side of fresh berries.

BONUS: Other novels featuring daughters of clergy:
The Pastor’s Wife (1914), by Elizabeth Von Arnim
The Rector’s Daughter (1924), by F.M. Mayor (featured here)
A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935), by George Orwell (Interesting, huh?)
The Four Graces (1945), by D.E. Stevenson (featured here)
Excellent Women (1952), by Barbara Pym
O Ye Jigs & Juleps, (1962) by Virginia Cary Hudson (recommended by Dee Dee Chumley)
A Long Way from Verona (1971), by Jane Gardam (featured here)

Any others you’d recommend?

Coming soon: 2019 Spooky Film Recs! Click here to browse offerings from previous years.

August Tea and a Book: A Gluttony of Gothic Mysteries

Quick take: After weeks of “comfort” reading (see more here), I had a sudden and powerful appetite for spooky Gothic. These four novels were just what I was craving, and I DEVOURED them in a matter of days. (Many thanks to Myra and Melissa for recommendations!)

Goodreads synopses:
The Death of Mrs. Westaway, by Ruth Ware. On a day that begins like any other, Hal receives a mysterious letter bequeathing her a substantial inheritance. She realizes very quickly that the letter was sent to the wrong person—but also that the cold-reading skills she’s honed as a tarot card reader might help her claim the money.
My thoughts: I listened to the audio and Imogen Church’s vocal performance is terrific–just what I needed for a 10 hour drive from TN to OK. This story is very reminiscent of Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar, with an extra boost of Gothic atmosphere and tension.

The Crossing Places, by Elly Griffiths. Forensic archaeologist Dr. Ruth Galloway is in her late thirties and lives happily alone with her two cats in a bleak, remote area near Norfolk, land that was sacred to its Iron Age inhabitants—not quite earth, not quite sea. But her routine days of digging up bones and other ancient objects are harshly upended when a child’s bones are found on a desolate beach.
My thoughts: This story is a Gothic-tinged procedural mystery with an appealing heroine, told in a very engaging 3rd person present POV. (Really, it WORKED.) I could not put this book down, and I’m so thrilled to have been introduced to Elly Griffiths, who has written scads of novels under two different names. Huzzah!

The Stranger Diaries, by Elly Griffiths. Clare Cassidy is no stranger to murder. A high school English teacher specializing in the Gothic writer R. M. Holland, she teaches a course on it every year. But when one of Clare’s colleagues and closest friends is found dead, with a line from R. M. Holland’s most famous story, “The Stranger,” left by her body, Clare is horrified to see her life collide with the storylines of her favourite literature.
My thoughts: As a former high school English teacher, I loved the premise, setting, and characterization in this standalone novel. The story is told through multiple narratives, both straightforward 1st person and diary entries, and I love how the reader is offered at least two different takes on most of the major events in the plot.

The Turn of the Key, by Ruth Ware. When she stumbles across the ad, she’s looking for something else completely. But it seems like too good an opportunity to miss—a live-in nannying post, with a staggeringly generous salary. And when Rowan Caine arrives at Heatherbrae House, she is smitten—by the luxurious “smart” home fitted out with all modern conveniences, by the beautiful Scottish Highlands, and by this picture-perfect family. What she doesn’t know is that she’s stepping into a nightmare… My thoughts: As you might have guessed, this is a modern take on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Very clever and creepy, though I should admit that I didn’t fall in the love with the protagonist. Perhaps that’s to be expected in this sort of story? As a former nanny, I could easily identify with Rowan’s stress and worry, and the “smart” house setting was skin-crawlingly creepy. Great read!


Now for tea:
Since these are the sort of books one stays up late reading, it seemed appropriate to offer an herbal option. I chose “Little Dickens” from Bellocq: “A chocolate-kissed blend that is loved by all, this caffeine-free tisane is blended from organic, fair trade South African rooibos, vanilla, soothing mint, and cinnamon. This treat calms jitters, settles tummies, soothes the soul, and does so especially well when served with milk and honey.” Find more details here.


Gorgeous, isn’t it? Very tasty, too.

***What fiction have you been devouring lately? Anything to recommend?***

Friday Favorites: Tea on Mackinac Island

Our final tea adventure of the summer took place at The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. We warmed up with a hike to Fort Mackinac, followed by an 8 mile bike ride around the island. By the time we reached the hotel we were ready for refreshment.


Tea service begins at 3:30 in the hotel parlor and is accompanied by live music. (We were treated to the harp during our visit.) The hotel has streamlined the menu, making it easy for patrons to relax and enjoy the experience. For tea they only offer English Breakfast, but their blend was so delicious that I later purchased a bag to take home with me. In addition they offer a choice of champagne, sherry, or sparkling juice.


Our tiered trays were delightful. For sweets there were scones with cream, chocolate-covered strawberries, fruit tarts, Kentucky butter cake, violet macarons, and coconut chocolate balls. For savories we enjoyed hummus tarts and roast beef on rye, along with cucumber, ham, and turkey sandwiches. I was pleasantly sated and yet still prepared to hop on my bike for more adventures.


I couldn’t resist sharing this shot of my husband and friends affecting a “languidly posh” attitude whilst we waited for our tea. The setting truly is elegant, don’t you think?

Learn more about Afternoon Tea at The Grand. Do note that it is rather expensive–especially with the added $10 per person for non-residents of the hotel–but after your delicious tea you can burn calories by wandering the beautiful grounds. There’s so much to see!

While on the island I kept fantasizing about the sort of mystery that might be set there. (Here’s what I found when I searched “Murder + Mackinac” on Amazon.) It’s only reachable by ferry or airplane and doesn’t allow cars, just bicycles and horse-drawn wagons. That said, there are plenty of people–entire families–who live there year round. The hotels don’t stay open, but the schools and many of the stores do! I would love to stay there for a month in winter, especially after watching this little video: