Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates


What is it about the phrase “Let’s Play a Game” that sets your nerves on edge when you hear it in a movie or read it in a book? That moment when the computer says “Global Thermonuclear War,” in War Games . . . you know something horrible is about to happen right?

In Black Chalk, it’s when university friends Chad, Jack and Jolyon attend something called the Freshers Fair, an event for students to learn about the various societies they can join for involvement in everything from tiddlywinks to socks. The three despair of finding anything worth their time and attention until Chad sees a stand labelled “Game Soc(iety).

“I have a proposition for you,” [Chad] said, “for an entirely original and inventive game.” No one from Game Soc flinched. “But I can turn straight around right no, if you don’t think original and inventive ideas are your thing.” He lifted his hands and made to leave.

“Continue,” said Tallest.

“Six people, a number of rounds, each one separated by a week. A game of consequences, consequences which must be performed to prevent elimination. These consequences take the form of psychological dares, challenges designed to test how much embarrassment and humiliation the players can stand. Throughout the rounds players who fail to perform their consequences are eliminated until only one is left standing.”

Jolene moved forward to stand shoulder to shoulder with his friend. “The game takes place in utter secrecy,” he said . . .

“So why, may I ask, are you doing to us?” said Tallest.

“Funding,” said Chad.

Game Soc’s representatives exchanged looks, then quickly and silently reached their decision. It was the first time any of them had smiled and now all three of them were smiling unanimously.

“How does ten thousand pounds sound?” said Tallest.

What could go wSEP Pranksrong? Six college students in the throes of self-actualization, raging hormones, insecurity and angst agree to play a game in which the goal is to test how much embarrassment and humiliation each player can stand.

Compare it to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History or Will Lavender’s Dominance, intellectual thrillers set on and about college campuses.

In reviewing Black Chalk for NPR, Jason Sheehan said, “I don’t want to say a word.” He explains it is because he loved Black Chalk so much, he doesn’t want to ruin the surprise for any reader, but rather allow each reader to “suck it down in one breath, like a lungful of dark water,” as he did.

Black Chalk effectively pits the six players of the game against one another, against the game itself, against Game Soc and against themselves. But Christopher Yates pits the reader against Black Chalk. Even as the students play, the reader is engaged in an ever-increasingly staked battle to figure out just what the heck is going on.

To say more, as Jason Sheehan so eloquently put it, might prevent you from experiencing “one of the greatest surprise reveals I’ve witnessed. A twist that’s like screwing your head on backwards.”


The author

Unlike many novelists, Yates (trained as a lawyer at Oxford University then worked as a puzzle editor in London) treats internet visitors to his website to the first two chapters of Black Chalk, for free. Undoubtedly confident that after you’ve read the first two chapters you will be hooked enough to buy the book. I share his confidence and even if you don’t read the first two chapters free, read the book.

The website ALSO includes four Black Chalk themed puzzles, photos of himself, his wife and his adorable dog Mabel, and . . . wait for it . . . a PLAYLIST! I haven’t found any recipes though. The website:

Seriously, choose this book for your book club. You will love it!

“But it was never supposed to be that sort of game.”

(bwa ha ha ha ha ha!!!)


Given that the book’s primary locale is the fictional Pitt College, the majority of comestibles mentioned are liquid.

Champagne cocktails of Pol Roger with one sugar cube per glass

Cuba libres or rum, coke and limes

Pints of ale


Kir Royales of cava and creme de cassis

Whiskeyblack chalk

 But there is a scene early on with a meal that I can quote here without violating my pledge not to spoil the book.

Jolyon climbed onto his bed to reach his window. On the ledge outside was a jug that matched the teacups. He brought the jug to the coffee table, removed a piece of foil from the top and poured milk into the teacups. Then he poured tea. The spout of the pot extended from a hole in the tea cosy.

“If I were a condemned man,” said Jolynon, “I’d definitely choose eggs for my last supper.”

Jolene put the breakfast in front of Chad. The egg was white and pure on the perfect golden toasts. He handed Chad a fork and put a small wooden dish of pyramid-shaped salt crystals on the coffee table between them. Then Jolyon went at his own egg with a fork, mashing it and spreading it over the slice of toast. The yolk was a bright orange, halfway between liquid and set. “Now this is important,” said Jolyon. “And I’m never going to tell this to anyone but you.” Jolene gave Chad his conspiratorial look. And then he said, “It’s the twenty-seven seconds that’s the secret.” He finished by crumbling salt across the smeared egg and raised the prize up. “English bruschetta,” he announced, and took a large bite.

There is also mention of salted pistachios and pork.


BLACK CHALK, THE SOUNDTRACK from Christopher J. Yates’ webpage.

1. Everything In Its Right Place — Radiohead [New York section]   2. Everything Happens To Me — Chet Baker [Chad’s favourite]   3. I Wanna Be Adored — The Stone Roses [Oxford section]   4. Nelson Mandela — The Specials [Jolyon’s favourite]   5. New York, New York — Frank Sinatra [Oxford section]   6. Bigmouth Strikes Again — The Smiths [Jack’s favourite]   7. Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead — The Munchkins [Oxford section]   8. Every Day Is Like Sunday — Morrissey [Oxford section]   9. Hey Jude — The Beatles [Emilia’s favourite]   10. Can’t Stand Me Now — The Libertines [New York section]   11. Love Will Tear Us Apart — Joy Division [Dee’s favourite]   12. The Ace of Spades — Motorhead [Oxford section]   13. Step On – Happy Mondays [Mark’s favourite]   14. Many Shades of Black — The Raconteurs [New York section]

If you follow this link,, Yates explains the music. (YAY CHRISTOPHER!)


Jolyon – Alex Pettyfer

Chad — Jesse Plemons

Jack – Rupert Grint

Mark – James Buckley

Emilia — Bella Heathcote

Dee — Evanna Lynch

***Amazingly, this does not appear to be in development as a movie at least according to IMDB. It would make a great one!

Happy Reading!



Snow Day Reads

snow day reads

Image by Peace Hill Press

Here in the Ohio Valley, we are waiting for 2016’s version of Snowmagedon, complete with snow, ice, bitter winds and court cancellations. HURRAH! I’ve got a book on tape I’ve been listening to while traveling — The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out A Window by by Jonas Jonasson — and several books on the read in my hands: No Mud, No Lotus by Thich Nhat Hanh, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, and Written in my Own Heart’s Blood, an Outlander novel by Diana Gabaldon.

I’ve got my grandmother’s potato soup cooking in a pot, some leftover turkey and black bean chili in the refrigerator and thinking about putting together some oatmeal and chocolate chip cookies, just in case things get desperate. And yes, a couple bottles of red wine.

What are you reading this weekend? If you need a suggestion . . . or a recipe . . . I don’t mind sharing.

black chalk

Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates. Shades of The Secret History as a gang of school friends embarks on a series of increasingly volatile games. The tension is hot enough to keep you warm. It’s available on Kindle so you can download it immediately.

Italian affair

An Italian Affair by Laura Fraser. Molto bene, Laura Fraser takes us on her real-life, personal journey falling in love in Italy. The landscape is gorgeous, the food is great, the romance is juicy. And Laura’s a great writer. I had the pleasure of taking a class from her at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference last February and would love to go on one of her writing excursions. Also available in kindle edition.


The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr. A true life mystery of recovering a lost Caravaggio. “Jonathan Harr has taken the story of theThe Lost Painting lost painting, and woven from it a deeply moving narrative about history, art and taste–and about the greed, envy, covetousness and professional jealousy of people who fall prey to obsession. It is as perfect a work of narrative nonfiction as you could ever hope to read.” —The Economist Also available on Kindle.

fault in our

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Want to lose yourself in a weepy love story? Read the book. Then watch the movie. Then pick up your old Riverside Shakespeare from college and read Romeo & Juliet. Kleenex necessary.


Any of Peter Mayle’s Provence books. Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. Or pull out one of those classics you sort of read in college moldering on your bookshelf: Vanity Fair (Thackery), The Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck), Oliver Twist (Dickens). Whatever it is, I’d love to know what you’re reading.

Stay warm.reading in snow





The Lake House by Kate Morton

lake house

Lake house in Albany, NY from Albany archives

Sadie Sparrow, forced into vacation from her post as detective with the London Metropolitan police department for her work on a missing mother case, retreats to Cornwall circa 2003 to visit her grandfather Bertie. While there, she finds an abandoned lake house — Loeanneth — the ancestral home of the deShiel family where a notorious crime occurred in 1933: the youngest child of Lord Anthony Edevane and his wife Eleanor deShiel Evevane  went missing.

So begins Kate Morton’s historical fiction, whodunit, Gothic romance, police procedural The Lake House. It has everything! A meet cute! An affair! A revenge plot! Tunnels! Fired servants! Charming grandpa! Pig-headed detectives! A crime novelist! And lots (and lots and lots and lots) of scenic detail. Grasses waving, winds whispering, brooks babbling, minds wandering, backstories telling, etc . . .

Midsummer-Ball_LgIt all began in 1933 at the Edevane’s Midsummer Party. Which actually was the deShielx tradition continued by Lord Anthony Edevane and Eleanor after Anthony rescued Loeanneth as a post-wedding, posf-suprise lordship gift for his wife.

So it all began in 1914ish when Anthony and Eleanor mlipton teaet cute: Anthony saved Eleanor from being run down on the streets of London by a bus bearing a Lipton tea ad on her way to see some tigers.

Actually, it all began in 2003 when Sadie Sparrow, incensed by the pigheaded of her superiors to consider her theory that a child’s mother has been murdered rather than run away, goes to the media and plants her theory in contravention of her orders. She is then placed on involuntary administrative leave by her partner where she discovers — Loeanneth. And a mystery she can sink her teeth into: the disappearance of 9 month old baby Theo.

Or perhaps it began when Eleanor was a child and her father’s best friend, Mr. Llewellyn, wrote a book for her that became a childhood classic.

Throughout The Lake House, each thought becomes a complex reference to the past and that reference is connected to another memory which strings along to the present or future.

The best view of the lake was from the Mulberry Room but Alice decided to mae do with the bathroom window. Mr. Llewellyn was still down by the stream with his easel, but he always retired early for a rest and she didn’t want to risk an encounter. The old man was harmless enough, but he was eccentric and needy, especially of late, and she feared her unexpected presence his room would send the wrong sort of signal. She’d been enormously fond of him once, when she was younger, and he of her. Odd to think of it now, at sixteen, the stories he’d told, the little sketches he’d drawn that she’d treasured, the air of wonder he’d trailed behind him like a song. At any rate, the bathroom was closer than the Mulberry Room, and with only a matter of minutes before Mother realised the first-floor rooms lacked flowers, Alice had no time to waste in climbing stairs.
The Lake House has interesting characters, a multi-dimensional plot, several elements of mystery and yet, at least in the audio version, it was at times a behemoth read (21 hours and 24 minutes!). The printed version is 512 pages long. If you love English-ness in your fiction, you will appreciate The Lake House. It seems a bit long for my book club, but there may be some that would lustily attack the pages, the details and the mysteries. There is certainly an abundance of food.
TEA. Dearie me, if you played a drinking game every time tea is mentioned in this book you would be drunk by page 5.
During one particularly significant picnic, Eleanor provides
Ham Sandwiches
Cox’s Orange Pippins (an apple!)
There is also mention of “bully beef” (Corned beef) and tinned milk.
And Pear Cake.
From Chocolate and Zucchini, a lovely food blog, here’s a recipe for Pear Cake. It sounds delicious and I can’t wait to try.
Music wasn’t incredibly important to the plot of The Lake House but some of the names of the characters were incredibly musical. I think I will make a play list based on character’s names.
Alice — Sweet Little Alice Blue Gown
Deborah — Deborah by The Crickets
Clementine — Darling Clementine, folk song
Eleanor — Eleanor Rigby by The Beatles
Ben — Ben by Michael Jackson
Bertie — Bertie by Kate Bush
Anthony — Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song) by Billy Joel
Sadie — Sadie by James Taylor
Isn’t that fun?!?!
Casting lake house book
Young Alice — Saoirse Ronin
Sadie — Kelly Reilly (love her in season two of True Detective)
Anthony — Jude Law
Eleanor — Sienna Miller
Ben — Jamie Dornan
Old Alice — Judi Dench
Bertie — Michael Gambon
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At the Movies

movieWatching the Golden Globes on Sunday night, I realized just how many current and recent movies began with books. This post highlights some of my reviews — I didn’t do too well with the movie casting!

danish girl bookThe Danish Girl by David Ebershoff. Still one of my favorite books of 2015, although I didn’t think the movie lived up to the potential of the book. It was beautifully shot, well-acted but somehow some of the feeling leaked away. I didn’t make any guesses in the casting department because the movie was already cast. So let’s call it 0-0 for now.

kiterunnerThe Kite Runner by Khalid Hosseini. A book I found too painful to even consider watching the movie. I did see a nice theatrical production at Actors Theatre of Louisville. No Casting here either so still 0-0.

The Martian by Andy Weir. Loved the book. Loved the movie. Did not cast. 0-0.

Room 2Room by Emma Donoghue. The book was fascinating but I think I appreciated the movie even more thanks to Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay and Joan Allen (who should be nominated for Best Supporting Actress).

JamieIn the best television category, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. I’m a long-time fan. Love the series. LOVE Jamie Fraser.  Can you blame me?



There are some coming out this year that I will feature in another blog post. Till then, happy reading!

Fates & Furies by Lauren Groff

(c) Museums Sheffield; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Three Fates              Museums Sheffield; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

If there was a consensus choice for best book of 2016, it was Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff’s microscopic view of modern marriage. According to Ms. Groff’s website, Fates and Furies is a finalist for the National Book Award, finalist for the Kirkus Prize, NPR’s Morning Edition Book Club Pick and a New York Times Bestseller. It was Amazon’s book of the year and also President Obama’s favorite book of the year, after learning of which the author tweeted: “I just died, came back to life, read again, died again. That’s it, I retire.”

Fates and Furies is another novel in which you see two different marriages that are one and the same. In the first half of the novel deals in Lotto’s viewpoint of his perfect marriage to Mathilde, “the best person I know,” whose endless sacrifices, patience and pragmatic luminescence fulfill Lotto in ways even he doesn’t understand. This is Fate.

Lotto was weeping; he could tell from the cold on his face. He tried to keep quiet. Mathilde needed sleep. She had been working sixteen-hour days, six days a week, kept them fed and housed. He brought nothing to their marriage, only disappointment and dirty laundry.


Orestes Pursued by the Furies, John Singer Sargent

In part two, Groff lets us in on a little secret. Mathilde is in fact not the best person Lotto knows.

The woman stopped five feet from Mathilde with a little cry. Mathilde brought her hands to her cheeks. “I know,” she said. I’ve looked so old ever since my husband — ”

She couldn’t finish the sentence.

“No,” the woman said. “You’re still elegant. It’s just. You look so angry, Mathilde.”   . . .

Slowly, Mathilde said: “Angry. Sure. Well, what’s the point of hiding it anymore?”

And then she lowered her head, pressed on.

Her anger is just the beginning. For every ecstatic beatitude Lotto offers, Mathilde has a hidden counterpart. Her past, her dealings with Lotto’s mother, her feelings about having a child; even the smile that perpetually creases her divine face. These are the Furies.

fates and furiesThe New York Times ran an unreservedly positive review in September, 2015 and named Fates and Furies one of the 100 Notable Books of 2015.

 A domestic union set prominently in a work of fiction has the sometimes unfortunate capacity to obscure whatever else is going on. Yet “Fates and Furies,” Lauren Groff’s remarkable new novel, explodes and rages past any such preconceptions, insisting that the examination of a long-term relationship can be a perfect vehicle for exploring no less than the nature of existence — the domestic a doorway to the philosophical.

Groff weaves Greek mythology into the narrative and even her technique harkens back to classical Greek literary traditions. An unnamed voice comments parenthetically throughout like a Greek chorus.

Each of the three Greek Fates plays a hand in the plot: Clotho the Spinner of the Thread of Life, Lachesis, the Measurer of the Thread allotted to each person; and Atropos, the Cutter of life’s thread. The Furies, more of a girl group of nameless “infernal goddesses”play a critical role in the Orestes myth for pursuing Orestes into madness after he murders his mother. There’s some fun gals!

The Slate book club discussion illuminates and challenges several of Groff’s devices and is available to listen to online: If you want to get really literary for your book club, there are a plethora of reading guides for this novel on line; everything from NPR’s Morning Edition to the University of Virginia.

Or you can just read it, enjoy it and see whether, like the Oracle of Delphi, it has a message for you.


I’m actually hosting my book club’s discussion of this book next week and drawing my menu from the potluck garden party Lotto and Mathilde host early in their marriage.

Bibb Lettuce salad with vinaigrette

Vinaigrette: two tablespoons of dijon mustard, 1 teaspoon of sugar, fresh herbs (thyme, rosemary, mint) and 1/4 cup of balsamic vinegar. Drizzle olive oil stirring until you have the consistency you want. You can use lemon juice in place of the vinegar if you prefer.

Spanakopita (I’ll get these at Trader Joe’s)

Artichoke Dip. Always a favorite and a simple recipe. One can of artichoke hearts, one cup of mayonnaise, one cup of parmesan cheese. Blend and bake at 350 until hot and crusty and delicious.

Lasagna. I don’t have a recipe for this yet, but my mother told me her secret is to add cream cheese to the ricotta. I’m going to try it with turkey instead of beef. I’ll let you know how it turns out.


Antigone by Frederic Leighton


Mentions: The opera Tristan und Isolde; Salt-N-Pepa; Nirvana; Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Then there are the fictional operas of Nero and Go.

There is an opera by Carl Orff entitled Antigonae which might be fun to listen to, or might be a drag. I wanted to mention it in case you were interested, but I think I’ll play Thriller.



Lotto: Liam Hemsworth

Mathilde: Emma Stone

Chollie: Jonah Hill

Happy Reading!

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