Tag Archives: recommendations

March Tea and a Book: The Invited by Jennifer McMahon

After a long drought, I finally found a book that captivated me, kept me glued to the pages until the end, and only took two days to read because I could hardly bear to put it down.

Goodreads synopsis:
In a quest for a simpler life, Helen and Nate abandon the comforts of suburbia and their teaching jobs to take up residence on forty-four acres of rural land where they will begin the ultimate, aspirational do-it-yourself project: building the house of their dreams. When they discover that this charming property has a dark and violent past, Helen, a former history teacher, becomes consumed by the legend of Hattie Breckenridge, a woman who lived and died there a century ago.

My thoughts
I am always drawn to “moving to the country/living off the land” sorts of stories because they are inherently full of conflict–internal and external–even without ghosts. In the case of this book, I loved the notion of building a haunted house, for that’s what Helen ends up doing as she incorporates historical artifacts and materials into her home design. (The fact that the home site lies near a rather mystical and creepy bog makes it all the better.)

The cast of characters is rather large, but each individual is distinct and, in most cases, seamlessly woven into the story. I really appreciated that the characters’ behavior–be it thoughtful, reckless, or downright avoidant–pushed the plot forward, and though there were surprises, everything made sense in the end. Some horror stories show characters driving themselves insane and wrecking all their relationships in pursuit of “the truth,” bringing catharsis through spectacularly messy implosion. That can be interesting, of course, but I appreciated how the characters in this story learned from mistakes, clued in to nuances, and generally tried to be their best selves once they knew what was at stake.

Now for tea:
To pair with spooky books, I prefer simple, cozy snacks. I baked easy, delicious Irish White Scones from a mix by Odlums, “Ireland’s favorite home baking brand.” Do check the link–they have such a wide variety of scrumptious mixes. I happened to find this mix at World Market, and I do hope Odlums will make more of their products available in the U.S. For tea I chose Paris Breakfast from Mariage Freres, containing “notes of honey, malted-chocolate, vanilla, buttered brioche, and candied tangerine.” I added a splash of milk and just a bit of Turbinado sugar.

I ate my scone with fresh berries but they’d also be perfect with fruit jam and butter or clotted cream. The scones were very light and fluffy, not too sweet, with a nice crunch to the crust. Best of all, they were SO EASY to make.

A final mystery:
Readers, 2020 has been a struggle for me so far, as it’s proven well nigh impossible for me to finish a book. I started several promising stories, but with each one I lost interest by the halfway point.

The hardcover of The Invited released at the end of April, 2019, and I have no idea how it ended up in my possession. I never ordered it. I didn’t put it on any wishlist. I never sought it out at a bookstore, as far as I can remember. It simply wasn’t on my radar. One day, however, I looked up and saw it on my shelf. SPOOKY.

If one of my pals out there sent it to me, or was with me when I bought it, would you let me know? If no one responds, I’ll just have to assume that the universe took it upon itself to end my reading drought by delivering the right book at the right time. 🙂

Friends, what do YOU do when stuck in a reading rut?

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Featured image credit: File ID 126446344 | © Dabisik | Dreamstime.com

Friday Favorites: Holiday Tea at the Arizona Biltmore

Last week Steve had a conference at the Arizona Biltmore, and I was happy to tag along. The Biltmore is famous for its architecture, beautiful grounds, celebrity guests, and . . . afternoon tea!


The hotel has a fascinating history and offers cozy elegance along with friendly service. The weather was beautiful during our stay, and I had many opportunities to bask in the magic of the holidays. My favorite experience was, of course, the Holiday Tea, which I shared with a new friend who also happened to be tagging along for this conference.


The tea sommelier, Kevin, took our order for Nutcracker Tea–a Black tea with hazelnut and vanilla flavors–then brought our first tiered tray of scones and savories. The scones were Lemon Ginger with Kumquat Jam, Devonshire Cream, Lemon Curd, and Raspberry Jam. Quite delicious!


Here’s a closer look at the savories: On the middle level we found Roasted Turkey and Kumquat with Sage and Cranberry Marmalade on 12 Grain, Grilled Chicken and Caramelized Apple Jam, Brie, and Spiced Pecans, as well as Salmon with Tiny Shrimp Salad and Lemon Zest Cream Fraiche on Profiterole. The first two were delicious but I skipped the tiny shrimp.


On the lower level we found Black Pepper Beef Tenderloin and Juniper Berry on Brioche, along with European Cucumber and Boursin Mousse with Pickled Red Onion on Pumpernickel.


The sweet course included Chocolate Peppermint Gateau, Vanilla Cranberry Verrine, Cinnamon Pecan Pie, and Pumpkin Cake with White Chocolate Eggnog Cream. We took the Gingerbread Men with us and Steve enjoyed mine later.

The Biltmore Afternoon Tea is fun and festive, but at $75+ per adult it’s not a bargain. However, you’re guaranteed to have a full tummy by the end and the staff is happy to box up items you were unable to finish. The vibe was relaxed, and the chatter and laughter never intruded on my enjoyment of the experience. The service was attentive, but we never felt rushed. All in all, I highly recommend this experience!

Happy Holidays to Everyone!

Friday Favorites: Cozy Christmas Tea Party 2019

Does it seem like the holidays are rushing right past you? One way to slow time and enjoy this festive season is to sit down to a holiday-themed afternoon tea. Today I’m sharing a tea I hosted at home just last week, and in particular I’d like to highlight some of the easy gluten-free options I found.


One of my favorites things about planning an afternoon tea is choosing the teas to serve. I’ve long had a fondness for French blends, and thus I chose Palais des Thes for the scone and savory courses. For the sweet course I served a tea from Brooklyn purveyor Bellocq.

More details:
Holiday Black Tea No. 25, with its blend of vanilla pods, almonds, cinnamon, ginger, orange peel and lemon zest, is sure to put you in the holiday mood. I enjoy it with milk and a little bit of turbinado sugar.

Noel Theophile is a green tea with plum & quince flavors that pairs well with savory bites. If you order it, however, keep in mind that it’s been renamed ThĂ© du Louvre. (You might also consider Palais des ThĂ©s’ Holiday Green Tea, which looks delicious.) I added a wee bit of sugar to my cup, but now I’m thinking honey would be better.

Little Dickens is a light and refreshing herbal tea for the final course. I think it tastes best with a little milk but no sugar, for it has a natural sweetness that is subtle enough to pair well with sweet treats.


Here you see the tea table set for four. I made some old favorites, such as spinach and red pepper mini-quiches and frosted sugar cookies. This year I also added several gluten-free options. I played it safe, however, by using mixes and some pre-made options.

The following options turned out quite well:
Sticky Fingers Gluten-free Pumpkin Cranberry Scones — These were so easy to mix. I patted the dough into a round (using Almond flour) and cut pie-shaped scones. I sprinkled these with Demerara sugar and baked on a parchment-lined sheet. They rose beautifully and smelled delicious–you’ll see the finished product at the top of the tiered tray. Everyone agreed they were quite tasty, but I will say that they hardened over time–not great for re-heating the next day. (Sticky Fingers offers 5 gluten-free scone flavors!)

Williams Sonoma Gluten-free Gingerbread — Easy and delicious! They are so moist and you’ll get a little extra kick from the bits of crystallized ginger sprinkled into the mix. I made muffins and drizzled a little icing (powdered sugar and milk) on top. Very yummy. I also tried to make a loaf but didn’t let it bake long enough. Rest assured this gingerbread rises beautifully and is scrumptious when baked correctly.

Lovemore Gluten-free Mince Pies — These pies made in Wales have a tasty (but delicate) crust with a filling that may remind you of a Fig Newton. They warm up nicely in the oven. Keep in mind that they have a relatively short shelf life, so order close to the time that you plan to serve them. (They are available online from English Tea Store and Amazon.) My favorite pre-made mince pies (NOT gluten free) are Walkers Spiced Orange and Cranberry. They are available at Cost Plus/World Market, as well as from Amazon.

Happy Holidays! Stay tuned for one more Christmassy post . . .

Tea for One at the Boston Public Library

I’ve been longing to have afternoon tea at the Boston Public Library’s Courtyard Tearoom for years now. Due to various commitments and unforeseen conflicts, I haven’t had success in getting my husband or a friend to join me, so during this latest trip I went solo.

It was lovely!


The tea menu was presented in a charming old book. The loose leaf teas were from MEM Tea Imports in Watertown, MA. (There’s a retail shop in North Cambridge — something to explore during my next trip to Boston?)


I chose the Assam tea along with a “Tequila Mockingbird” cocktail made with Prosecco, Blood Orange Hibiscus, Tea-Infused Tequila, Lime, and Strawberry. Both were delicious.


I had no idea we would be treated to a fashion show during the tea! This was my favorite dress.


The tea sweets and savories were presented on a tiered tray, but I arranged the items on a plate for my photographs. Above you see the savory options: Roasted Portobello (at the bottom), Herb Chicken Salad, Smoked Salmon, and Honey Ham. (Not pictured because I ate them so quickly: the English Cucumber and Maine Lobster sandwiches.) Absolutely scrumptious.

The scone course included a plain and a currant scone served with Blood Orange Preserve, Lemon Curd, and Devonshire Cream. I heard someone at a neighboring table complain that the scones were too small, but honestly I was relieved because it left room in my tummy for the sweet course.


Starting at the bottom and moving left: Pecan Tartlet, Macaron, Linzer Bar, Eggnog Cheesecake, and Chocolate Truffles.

Everything was top notch. The setting was lovely, the service attentive, the food and drink delicious, and the fashion show was a nice distraction. I highly recommend this tea experience, and I hope to enjoy it again and again. (They’ve offered a Holiday Tea in the past, so keep your eyes peeled and book early!)

Part III: Ghost-free SPOOKY Films

Today I conclude my 2019 spooky film recs with some Ghost-free viewing options!

All film synopses are from imdb.com.


Cold Skin (2017) — Unrated
In 1914, a young man arrives at a remote island near the Antarctic Circle to take the post of weather observer only to find himself trapped in a watchtower besieged by deadly creatures which live in hiding on the island. If there’s a historical film that is spooky AND co-stars Ray Stevenson, I’m going to watch it. David Oakes is great as the newly stationed weather attendant who soon learns that he and the eccentric lighthouse keeper (Stevenson) aren’t the only sentient creatures in the neighborhood. Physical and ethical clashes ensue. The pace is a little pokey at times, but it’s a gorgeous film.
Watch the Trailer / Options for Viewing / No Metascore


Us (2019) — Rated R
A family’s serene beach vacation turns to chaos when their doppelgängers appear and begin to terrorize them.
I love Jordan Peele and am a fan of Get Out, but for some reason I resisted watching this film for a time. It is quite good, but it’s also the sort of film one wants to discuss afterwards and my usual film-watching buddies were unavailable. I love how Peele adds humor to the horror, and Lupita Nyong’o is a standout in a very strong cast.
Watch the trailer / Options for Viewing / Metascore: 81 (tied with REVENGE for highest metascore of my 2019 recs)


Revenge (2017) — Rated R
Never take your mistress on an annual guys’ getaway, especially one devoted to hunting – a violent lesson for three wealthy married men. This one consistently shows up at or near the top of “best horror films,” but I avoided it for a couple of years because of the content. I’m glad I finally watched. It’s not fun, but it’s deeply satisfying. It DOES NOT eroticize violence against women. In fact, according to one reviewer, it “gouges the male gaze out of our eyeballs.” Keep in mind there is a high level of gore in this film.
Watch the trailer / Options for Viewing / Metascore: 81


Midsommar (2019) — Rated R
A couple travels to Sweden to visit a rural hometown’s fabled mid-summer festival. What begins as an idyllic retreat quickly devolves into an increasingly violent and bizarre competition at the hands of a pagan cult. This film is LONG and WEIRD. Like Hereditary it deals with the consequences of unrelenting grief and depression, but with an entirely different outcome. (So different that you almost forget about the grief–but maybe that’s the point?) I do think Ari Aster drags out the film with those long ritualistic sequences, but unlike some reviewers, I feel mostly satisfied with the ending. It made a certain sort of sense to me as a deliberate contrast to Hereditary‘s conclusion.
Watch the trailer / Options for Viewing / Metascore: 72


Upgrade (2018) — Rated R
Set in the near-future, technology controls nearly all aspects of life. But when Grey, a self-identified technophobe, has his world turned upside down, his only hope for revenge is an experimental computer chip implant called Stem. This is my favorite horror film of this year’s offerings. I would call Upgrade a “Tech Noir” in the vein of Blade Runner and other “near future” scifi horror. It stars Logan Marshall-Green (whom I loved in The Invitation) as a vengeful widower and Simon Maiden as the voice of Stem. Oh, how darkly fun this film is! I won’t say more — just watch it.
Watch the trailer / Options for Viewing / Metascore: 67

That’s all from me for 2019–Hope you find something fun to watch. Do let me know in the comments if you have any recommendations. Happy Horror Viewing!