Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

So this was a totally bizarre, engrossing and freaky ride of a book. I haven’t read anything in quite awhile that literally hooked me from the first sentence and didn’t let go. I actually checked it out at the library and got three overdue notices because I wanted to read it slowly and savor it, and then read it over again. In fact, I ended up buying it for myself as a Christmas gift and thus far have read it a total of four times. So yes, you could say I love this book!

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Bardugo is an intense writer and I love her unique style with words. Visceral, irreverent yet serious, with occasional blasts of sick humor and an absolutely fascinating murder mystery, mixed with black magic, frat boy hijinks and one of the more uniquely loveable heroines in fiction and a wonderful world of magic set against an Ivy League university setting………such a bizarre premise that of course it works.

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Alex Stern has been given a second chance, both at life having survived a gruesome multiple murder and in academia having been chosen to attend Yale on a free ride. It turns out that her lifelong ability to see the spirits of the dead – Grays, as she calls them – is the very reason she is chosen to attend this legendary Ivy League college. She is picked to oversee the magic of the eight houses at Yale, to act as a guardian against any of the black magic being noticed or misused by these houses, and in her role as “Dante,” she is part of Lethe House, the eponymous ninth house. She acts as a type of apprentice to “Virgil,” who is Daniel Arlington when he’s at home, or Darlington, as he is more familiarly known.

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When Darlington mysteriously disappears during a magic ritual and when Alex discovers the murder of a town girl and finds connections with four of the eight magical houses, she sets out on a quest to find the murderer and becomes embroiled not just in a police procedural mystery but the real, nasty, dirty reality of the type of magic being practiced at Yale. Some of the houses cast spells of manipulation and perception, some raise the dead, some work with plants to create magical potions,  some can tell the future. Alex has taken to heart Darlington’s assessment that they are “shepherds,” meant to oversee and contain the magic and to protect innocent bystanders.

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I personally love a book that does not explain everything from the get-go and that basically sets up this alternate universe and expects you to follow along and learn as you go. That’s what Bardugo does in this book. She doesn’t stop to explain how this house came into being, why their magic works, why Alex can see Grays and how Alex came to end up at Yale after a youth filled with petty drug use, stealing and living with drug dealers. Rather, you find out in subtle flashbacks and that old “suspension of disbelief.” If you can let go and follow Bardugo into the world of magical fraternities, spirits of the dead, invisible hounds that protect sacred spaces, and ghosts who can possess the living, you will so not be disappointed.

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Darlington is watched over in his position of Virgil by “Oculus,” his cook/housekeeper/research assistant who also acts as a protector and source of information about the other houses….or as her real name goes, Dawes. She and Alex initially dislike each other on site and probably on principle, but they are united in their love for Darlington and desire to get him back, and their need to understand the supernatural. Early in the book, Virgil and Dante – Darlington and Alex – return to Darlington’s private house where Oculus – Dawes – has prepared them a meal to fortify them after all the magical goings-on of the evening, to the delight of Darlington.

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Dawes slid her headphones down to her neck “We have smoked salmon and egg and dill sandwiches.” “Dare I ask?” “And avgolemono.” “I’d say you’re an angel, but you’re so much more interesting.” Dawes clucked her tongue. “It’s not really a fall soup.” “It’s barely fall and there’s nothing more fortifying.”

I’d never made avgolemono soup before, that delicious, delicate yet filling Greek soup of chicken, rice and lemon made creamy with a tempered mix of eggs gently whipped into the hot soup, but I figured it was time to give it a whirl. I was very happy and honored to be given the method from Jessica, one of my favorite Instagram posters and food bloggers, who can be found on IG at @jesswhoamamma. You won’t be disappointed in her feed. Anyway, this is her method, which she got from her beloved yia-yia (grandmother) and which I am proud to share with you now.

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INGREDIENTS
1 3-lb organic chicken
1 cup white rice (I used Basmati)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 large eggs
1 large lemon
1 cup ice-cold water
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Put the chicken into a large stockpot filled with about a gallon of water. Boil for 1-2 hours, skimming fat and impurities from the surface. Once cooked, remove chicken from liquid and let cool.

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Drain the stock into a clean pot and put on to a low boil, and add the rice and the tablespoon of butter. Let cook, and once the rice is tender, remove from the heat and get on with the avgolemono.

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Separate the egg yolks from the whites.

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Add juice of half the lemon and a tablespoon of ice-cold water to the egg whites, and whisk until frothy and pale.

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Whisk the egg yolks together, then add to the egg white mixture and whisk again until well combined.

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One spoonful at a time, add some hot broth to the egg mixture and whisk madly. This is called tempering the eggs, and what it does is slowly brings them to soup temperature and makes them creamy. If you put the eggs directly into the hot soup, they would cook and become scrambled eggs, and you DO NOT want that.

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After about 6 spoonfuls of hot stock being slowly added and whisked into the egg mixture, you can now pour the entire bowlful of egg mixture into the hot soup.

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Shred the chicken, remove the skin, gristle, and bones, and add the meat to the soup. Simmer very gently on low until everything is creamy and combined. Adjust seasoning and add more salt, pepper or lemon to your taste.

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Heaven! Light, rich, delicate yet substantial, with that effervescent tang of lemon, this soup is actually perfect year-round and not just in the fall. Sorry, Dawes! Darlington was right!

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Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

I ran across this weird and engaging book of short stories at a yard sale a few weekends back, and of course, the unusual title Vampires in the Lemon Grove caught my eye. Well, as a former Goth chick who loves all things dark, supernatural, creepy and eerie, anything with “vampire” in the title is likely going to be something I immediately want to investigate.

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A book of eight short stories featuring elements of the bizarre, weird and supernatural, but in very unexpected way, the title tale features a very unusual and supernatural (though not frighteningly so) story of a marriage between two ancient vampires, Clyde and Magreb, who have found themselves living their rather mundane marital life in a lemon grove in Sorrento, Italy, where Clyde sits on a bench, watches the tourists go by and ogles the Bay of Naples, befriends a strange Goth chick and ponders the life he and Magreb have led to this point.

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In many ways, the supernatural element of their being vampires is secondary, as their marriage mirrors any in modern times, questioning if that person still loves you after so many years together, the nature of love vs. companionship, and finding new and unique things – in this case, different drinks to slake their thirst – as a sort of parallel to their marriage in which they seek the new and the unusual to keep them engaged and entertained even as they alternately turn away from, and back towards, each other.

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You see, these two blood-drinking vampires have globe-trotted and traversed the continent, sucking the juice straight from the apple, sipping mint tea, cherry Coke floats, jacka’s milk, and in Clyde’s words, a thousand beverages that claim to have magical, thirst-quenching properties, in an effort to sate their never-ending lust for drinking blood. Oddly enough, when they find themselves drinking a pitcher of tart lemonade in the grove of Santa Francesca in Sorrento, once a Jesuit stronghold and now a touristy, overpriced lemon grove, they decide that lemons will be their tipple of choice going forward. So they proceed to settle in Sorrento and suck dry a good half-dozen lemons each per day.

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Honestly though, I only read the eponymous first story and the meandering prose lost me after awhile. I enjoyed reading about the vampiric evolution of a marriage and the luscious lemon groves of Amalfi but Russell, though a beautiful handler of the English language, really doesn’t know how to end a story and Vampires in the Lemon Grove ended on a very annoying and vague note of……what? Are they now bats? Will they fly away? Will Clyde now become the spirit of the young Goth girl? WTH, I asked myself?

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The saving grace is Russell’s ability to bring the description of those magical lemon groves along the Amalfi Coast vividly to life. It’s nearly enough to make you wish you were there, lying in that blazing coastal heat, watching the impossible blue of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Gulf of Naples, a glass of wine in one hand and the other hand trailing in the salty water and the heady scent of those uniquely tart-sweet lemons. I considered making some type of lemon cocktail designed to be gently sucked from a straw in homage of these two odd vampires, but instead decided on a dessert, and gave Meyer lemon pie a whirl. Meyer lemons are as close to a true Amalfi lemon as you can get without actually hopping flight to Sorrento, and since this is the season for Meyer lemons, it seemed like the perfect marriage……..and no vampires to be found.

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INGREDIENTS
1 all-butter pre-made frozen pie crust
4 Meyer lemons and 1 regular lemon
2 14-ounce cans sweetened condensed milk
3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 tablespoon orange extract
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 sugar
1/2 cup lemon juice
Zest of 1 Meyer lemon
3 tablespoons fresh mint

METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F and blind-bake the frozen pie crust for 15 minutes. Set aside to cool, and using a reamer or juicer, begin to juice the lemons into a bowl. They are very seedy so try to extract the seeds first if possible.

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In the mixing bowl of your most awesome red Kitchen Aid, add the three egg yolks and the vanilla.

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Add the lemon juice, the condensed milk and the salt, and mix well on medium for up to five minutes, until a you get a thickened, slightly golden, creamy texture.

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Pour the lemony mixture into the cooled pie crust and bake for 15 minutes. Allow to cool for another 15 minutes, then refrigerate overnight.

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Pour the heavy cream into the now-clean mixing bowl of your red Kitchen Aid using the whisk attachment, and mix for 7-8 minutes, until the cream forms thick peaks. Add the sugar,the lemon juice and the lemon zest and whip again.

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Spread the lemony cream over the top of the chilled pie.

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Garnish with freshly chopped mint, and dive right in. Don’t save any for those pesky, lemon-sucking vampires!

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