Book Review: Camino Island

First my grandma recommended Camino Island to me, then my MIL recommended John Grisham’s podcast, which follows his book tour for Camino Island, to me, and finally I took the hint from the universe and read Camino Island. I even bit the bullet to buy it since the wait list at the library was 50+ people deep and this story was becoming irresistible to me the more I heard about it. This was the first Grisham book I’ve read aside from Skipping Christmas (I know – what the heck?) but it won’t be my last, especially now that I know he lives in Cville and I have better odds of running into him than ever before. (#wishfulthinking #canwebefriends?)

Camino Island tells the story of the original F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts being stolen from Princeton’s Fireside Library vault and how they – and the culprits – are hunted across time and space. After opening with the crime and the criminals involved, we get to know Bruce Cable, a highly successful and affluent bookseller on Camino Island. Along with his wife, who deals in rare French antique furniture, he keeps a merry gang of authors in rotation for book signings, dinners, and other rendezvous around town. As you’d imagine, Bruce is incredibly charming, well dressed, and rich considering he’s a bookseller, but – as Grisham notes in his podcast – “It’s fiction.”

Mercer Mann, an aspiring novelist, is tapped to spy on Bruce and his bookstore in order to further the mission of recovering Fitzgerald’s manuscripts. She moves to the island and works on her novel while also working her way inside Cable’s small inner circle. Even though this story takes place in modern day, some of the scenes and aspects of their lifestyle remind me of the golden era in Paris 1920s, where Hemingway and Fitzgerald and their gang lived the dream. Perhaps that tone and imagery is appropriate, given the subject matter of the stolen manuscripts.

Grisham does a phenomenal job keeping readers in suspense while also letting them enjoy the ride. This is the perfect book to take on a long weekend to the beach (let’s be honest, nothing makes me want to be at the beach more than reading about the incredible seafood, long morning walks, and oceanside views). It’s not a legal thriller or heavy crime novel even though it is built around a crime from the start. It’s the perfect mix of intrigue, seedy characters, and people you want to be friends with – even if they don’t turn out to be who they seem.

Now the hard question: Which one of Grisham’s novels should I read next?

Stats: 306 pages
Rating: 3.75/5 stars
Recommended for: Fans of Grisham, the Fitzgerald era, or in the mood for a relatively light but suspenseful book.
Up next: The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly

Dinner Recipe: Spicy Chicken Enchilada Casserole

What are some of your staple grocery items? The things you always have on hand, buy another of when they run out, and even go so far as to keep extra stocked? For us, two of those items are salsa and tortilla chips. In college, I’d eat a bowl of chips and salsa while I was making dinner pretty much every day. After marrying Nathan, I noticed he has a bowl of chips and salsa for a snack more days than not, too. Clearly, we are a match made in snacking heaven 🙂

Needless to say, we are big fans of Mexican food, and it makes an appearance on our meal plan more weeks than not. This enchilada bubble bake has been our go-to since day one, but for the sake of variety, we’ve also enjoyed this easy cheesy chicken and rice casserole, Nathan’s mom’s recipe for taco bake, crockpot chicken enchilada chili, and for the super-simple nights: quesadillas. I can officially add this new recipe to the list as another winner!

This is a great recipe to use as a guideline when you have hodgepodge ingredients in your pantry. I came up with it when I realized we had 1/2 a can of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce left from this recipe, an open packet of burrito seasoning, unused tortillas from quesadilla night the week before, and a few other staples (can of corn and black beans, shredded cheese) that made the shopping list for this dish incredibly short. Oh! Plus the ever-present chips and salsa for a side, of course.

BUT – you do you. Adjust proportions and ingredients as you see fit. If you don’t like spice, leave out the chipotle peppers (seriously – they pack a big punch). If you’re vegetarian, leave out the chicken. If you don’t have tortillas on hand, crush up some chips instead or eat it as a dip. Oooh – if you have avocado, you should definitely throw that on top before serving, too. What I’m trying to say is: the possibilities are endlessly delicious.

If you, like us, are a fan of Mexican flavors in general, I really don’t think you can go wrong. The point is to have fun, eat well, and clean out the refrigerator and pantry in the process. Win win win!

Spicy Chicken Enchilada Casserole
Makes 6-8 servings

Ingredients

  • ~1/3 packet of burrito seasoning
  • 1/2 jar of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
  • 1-1.5 cups of shredded cheese (cheddar or Mexican blend)
  • 4 tortillas
  • 1 can corn
  • 1 can black beans
  • 1 can red enchilada sauce
  • 2 chicken breasts (cooked in burrito seasoning)

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Blend chipotle peppers in adobo sauce until smooth. Mix with enchilada sauce.
  3. Pour sauce into 9×13 baking dish.
  4. Drain black beans and corn, mix. Add to baking dish.
  5. Dice chicken and layer into dish.IMG_1632.JPG
  6. Quarter the tortillas and spread on top.
  7. Sprinkle with cheese.IMG_1633.JPG
  8. Cook for 25-30 minutes.IMG_1634.JPG

It doesn’t get much easier than that!

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In the future, I’m going to layer this dish – half of the sauce/bean/corn/chicken mixture, then a layer of tortillas, then the rest of the sauce, then the final layer of tortillas plus cheese. We just didn’t have enough tortillas on hand to do that this time, but I think it would help the dish hold its shape more. Our leftovers were firmer than what’s pictured above, though. As it cooled in the fridge, everything melded together nicely.

We served ours with some simple salads on the side, which helped cut some of the spice from the casserole.

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We’ll definitely be making this again, and if you try it, I hope you enjoy it too. Pass the chips and salsa, please 🙂

Weekend Recap: Grandparents Visit & Shenandoah Hike

After (another) week of Nathan on night shifts, it was nice to have the weekend off together. We spent time with grandparents on Friday and then in the great outdoors exploring a couple new trails on Saturday. Best way to relax and refresh!

FRIDAY

Grandma and Grandpa Beachy came through town on Friday on their way to Hilton Head. It was SO nice to see familiar faces in Cville! We haven’t seen them since Nathan’s graduation party in May, so we had a lot to catch up on. We felt spoiled having them all to ourselves.

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We showed them the Downtown Mall and our apartment, where we hung out for awhile. It was a lot of fun to have time together to visit and show them our place. I made sure Nathan showed them his white coat while they were here!

IMG_2094.JPG It was a beautiful evening, so we headed to Brazos for dinner, which has great outdoor seating.

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It was busier than we’ve ever seen it, but I think that has something to do with the fact that students are back in town…womp womp. The food was still worth the wait, though!

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I got my standard order of “This is My Yam” and “Fish Aficionado”. I convinced Grandma to try “This is My Yam” and she was a big fan too!

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On our way back to the hotel, we drove them by the hospital so they could see where Nathan works. After that, we dropped them off and called it a night.

SATURDAY

We were up bright and early Saturday to join Grandma and Grandpa for breakfast at their hotel before they headed out of town.

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It was great getting to see them for a little bit more while they were here. Grandma even gave us some of her homemade peach jam, which we can’t wait to put to good use! A little taste of home out here in Virginia 🙂 After breakfast, they hit the road. We wanted to jump in the car and go with them to the beach, but instead, we headed to the mountains.

We wanted to try a couple new trails in Shenandoah National Park while the weather is still nice. A couple of our good friends had done Hawksbill Trail and Dark Hollow Falls last weekend, so we stole a page out of their book and did the same.

It’s a bit of a drive to the trailhead (more than an hour) and both trails are relatively short (~2 miles each), so it made sense to do both and make the most of it once we were up there. We even went ahead and bought an annual pass to the park, so now we’re set to go back anytime!

We started at Dark Hollow Falls, a popular trail that’s about 1.5 miles. It took us 20 minutes to get down and 23 minutes to get up. IMG_2109.JPGWe also added on a little bit of distance along the fire road at the bottom along the creek.IMG_2108.JPG

Why did it take us longer to get back? It is pretty much ALL uphill on the way back. We were surprised by how steep the descent was on the way down, and we knew we were in for a workout on the way back. Definitely something to be mindful of if you plan to go on this trail. Otherwise, it was a beautiful trail and we enjoyed getting some photos of the waterfall once we got to the bottom!

Hawksbill Trail is the highest peak at Shenandoah National Park. Its trailhead is about 10 minutes from Dark Hollow Falls. There are quite a few campgrounds in this part of the park too, so we definitely want to come back and do that sometime.

Hawksbill is 1 mile up, 1 mile back. This might be one of our favorite trails yet! It was so beautiful the whole way, and surprisingly not very crowded on the trail itself. There were a ton of ferns and pretty flowers we tried to ID with our National Audubon Society book along the way 🙂

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Once you get to the top, there’s an overlook that opens out to a near 360-degree view.

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There is plenty of room to spread out, and quite a few people were having picnics or just relaxing up there. It felt like we could see forever.

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IMG_2114.JPGMy kinda hike = drive a long way up, hike a little bit, and still get a great view 🙂

We really enjoyed both of these trails and are so glad we took advantage of a day off to do them. Escaping into the mountains is one of our favorite things about living here, and we aren’t sure we could go back to not being able to do this whenever we want!

The rest of the day was spent restocking our fridge, cooking, and sleeping hard that night since Nathan was still catching up from night shifts.

SUNDAY

Sunday was more rest and relaxation. We went to church, had a couple friends over to watch football + eat pizza, then went to small group. Pretty simple but just what we needed to gear up for another workweek.

This week has more fun in store with a highly anticipated visit from Nathan’s parents. We are looking forward to showing them around town and catching up. Stay tuned!

Book Review: Into the Water

Welcome back to the wonderful and twisted world of Paula Hawkins’ mind. I say welcome back because I assume you’ve already read her bestseller, The Girl on the Train. Or at least seen the movie. You have, right? (If the answer is no, stop reading and go do that!)

Now that we’re all on the same page…
(^see what I did there?)

Into the Water is Paula Hawkins’ highly anticipated second novel about a river that runs through town and the women who have died in it. The story begins with the most recent death in the river, or the Drowning Pool as they call it, of a single mother. Her sister comes back to town to search for answers and meaning and has her whole life turned inside out by what she learns along the way. With Hawkins’ signature suspenseful and elusive writing style, this novel will keep you turning page after page and guessing right up until the end. The plot is dark and twisting and unpredictable, not unlike the river itself.

While a fairly quick read, I found it somewhat hard to follow certain parts of the book. Particularly in the beginning, so many allusions are made to vague theories and various characters that readers aren’t familiar with that it makes it more frustrating than frightening or suspenseful. Similarly, I’m not sure the plot is strong enough to support the intrigue. Let me explain… **SPOILER ALERT** There’s an element of mysticism throughout the book, the river’s curse and the serial deaths that have occurred there over centuries, but Hawkins never does explain how the various women who died in the Drowning Pool are connected, only that they were “troublesome.” Needless to say, that left me less than satisfied in the end. I was hoping for a big reveal that would explain it all (rather than just explain the most recent deaths), but that never came.  **SPOILER ALERT OVER**

Overall, I’m glad I read this book. It was hard not to get my hopes up on the heels of The Girl on the Train, but that is a tough impossible act to follow! Into the Water is well written, the characters are interesting, and the plot is as eery as it is irresistible. Enjoy this book, but maybe not poolside…unless you dare 😉

Stats: 394 pages
Rating:
3/5 stars
Recommended for: Fans of Hawkins’ first book and those who enjoy suspense grounded in reality with a hint of otherworldliness along the way.
Up next: Honestly, I’m not sure! I have several books on hold at the library, so it’s just a waiting game of what becomes available first 🙂

Dinner Recipe: Slow-Cooker Corn Chowder

We’re in that weird in-between phase of summer and fall. I find myself craving all the cozy parts of the cooler months – sweaters and lattes and football (oh my!), but still enduring some lingering hot temperatures outside. This recipe is the perfect bridge between summer and fall. It incorporates a summertime staple – corn – and the slow cooker, which means you don’t have to slave over a hot oven in hot temperatures. Of course, the slow cooker also screams fall to me. It’s a team player like that.

This recipe comes from a summer edition of Southern Living magazine, courtesy of Grandma Beachy, who got us a subscription when we moved to Virginia. We love our Southern Living cookbook, so we knew we couldn’t go wrong with this one! We made this on a rainy day and it was the perfect comfort food to come home to that night. Unlike some other slow cooker recipes we’ve done, there is some significant prep work involved. Make sure you plan about a half hour in advance to get all your ingredients prepared in the slow cooker. You’ll want at least 6 hours for it to cook afteward, too.

Slow-Cooker Corn Chowder
(Source)
Yield: ~8-10 servings

Ingredients

  • 14 ears fresh yellow corn
  • 2.5 cups chicken stock
  • 2 medium-size russet potatoes, peeled and chopped
  • 1 yellow onion, chopped
  • 4 thyme sprigs
  • 3 garlic cloves, mashed
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. black pepper
  • 4 thick-cut bacon slices, cooked and crumbled
  • .5 cup red onion, chopped
  • 2 tbsp. fresh chives
  • 2 tbsp. fresh lime juice
  • 1 cup heavy cream

Directions

  1. Cut corn kernels from cobs. Set aside 1 cup of kernels. Place remaining kernels in slow cooker. IMG_1994.JPG
  2. Use the back of a knife to scrape cobs to release all juices.IMG_1995.JPG
  3. Add corn milk, stock, potatoes, yellow onion, thyme, garlic, salt, and pepper to slow cooker.IMG_1998.JPG
  4. Cover and cook on low for around 6 hours.
  5. Stir together 1 cup corn kernels, bacon, red onion, chives, and lime juice in a small bowl. Let chill for up to 6 hours.IMG_1996.JPG
  6. When ready to serve…Remove half of chowder, set aside.
  7. Process remaining chowder using an immersion blender until smooth.
  8. Stir together reserved and pureed chowder in slow cooker.
  9. Stir in heavy cream.
  10. Serve in bowls, top with chilled corn topping.

IMG_2002.JPGThis was so delicious! It’s the first chowder we’ve ever made (and the first one I can remember ever eating) and it’s a keeper. This was so satisfying with the different textures and flavors (a nice mix of sweet and savory), plus it makes quite a bit, so it’s perfect for freezing some for later or making it for a group.IMG_1999.JPGWe served ours with cornbread (notice a theme?) and roasted broccoli. All together it was the perfect combination! The end result was totally worth the extra prep work required. If you’re looking for a hearty, delicious way to usher in fall and say goodbye to summer, you have to try this dish!