“Dear Mr. Wrexham,
You have no idea how many times I have started this letter and screwed up the resulting mess, but I’ve realized there is no magic formula here. There is no way I can make you listen to my case. So I’m just going to have to do my best to set things out. However long it takes, however much I mess this up, I’m just going to keep going and tell the truth.”
Rowan James stumbles upon a job opportunity that will solve all her problems, a live in nanny to 4 children. The post is at an isolated manor house recently updated to be a state of the art smart house. Rowan is the 5th nanny in a year, and at least one of her predecessors ran off in the night. Once she’s alone with the kids and the house, she soon knows why. The smart house malfunctions constantly, turning lights on and off without warning and blaring music. Rowan begins to hear footsteps in the attic above her room when no one else is home. Objects disappear and then reappear in places she had already thoroughly searched. There’s a locked door in her room, a walled poison garden, and she feels as though she is constantly being watched. Then the unimaginable happens.
“I am telling you the truth. The unvarnished, ugly truth. And it is all that. It is unpolished and unpleasant, and I don’t pretend I acted like an angel. But I didn’t kill anyone. I just fucking didn’t.”
“The Turn of the Key” is a modern reimagining of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw.” Told entirely through a letter to a solicitor, Rowan tries to persuade the reader to believe her and her story that she is not a child killer.
I love Ruth Ware’s books and I have really enjoyed her recent foray into gothic horror with “The Death of Mrs. Westaway” and “The Turn of the Key.” “The Turn of the Screw is one of my favorite classic novels, and Ware has created an excellent tale in its honor. This is a nail-biting tale that kept me on edge. I could feel Rowan’s anxiety build with each page. Alone with malicious kids, isolated from the world, feeling watched and then finding a locked door in her room. Ghost stories of the house’s past, footsteps creaking above her, the secret poison garden, and then there’s dolls. I’ve already mentioned my dislike of dolls in my review of Agatha Christie’s “The Séance.” I think it’s best to assume they are vessels of possession. And this book also has a creepy “Annabelle” level doll along with an “Exorcist” style creepy kid.
Maddie (previously mentioned creepy kid) is malicious in a way that’s terrifying in an 8 year old. But she reminded me of a day I spent babysitting my nephew Caleb. He was only a couple years old and the first grandkid in our family. I was 20 at the time and hadn’t been around kids much. That day my bestie Claire and I were watching Caleb at my parent’s house and no one else was home. We decided to bake an elaborate cake that involved ladyfingers and custard and had to go to the grocery for provisions. Caleb had always been an easy kid. He was happy and easy to entertain. He was excellent at the store and by the time we got back home, he had fallen asleep in his car seat. I went to unbuckle him and tried to wake him up and he wasn’t waking. I lightly shook him saying his name. Nothing. I started to panic. He wasn’t breathing. I looked at Claire and said, “I think something’s wrong.” We are both shaking him, saying his name louder and more panicked when he suddenly popped up with an evil mischievous grin and said, “HA!” In that moment I went from “Oh my god, my sister is going to kill me if Caleb dies,” to “I will kill this demon child!” He laughed and laughed, Claire and I did not.
A couple hours later, he had the same evil mischievous grin while slowly grinding the single chocolate chip I had given him into the only rug in the room. I swear he looked me in the eye as he squished it into the carpet with his foot. He even took his sock off to do it.
You’ll be delighted to know I didn’t kill him that day. If fact he grew up and just graduated high school. Happy 2020 Pandemic Graduation Caleb! But you should also know that every once in a while, he still grins that evil mischievous grin, and I remember.
Back to the book, I did really enjoy this one. My only complaint is that throughout the book, everything was perfectly paced. I was engulfed in the story, but the ending was a bit of a let down. Not the plot so much as the pacing of the end. It felt very abrupt and wrapped in a way that didn’t fully make sense. But it’s definitely a solid read and if you enjoyed any of her previous work, or love Henry James’ original tale, or just enjoy a creepy, isolated, haunted house, pick this book up!
With all the twists and turns in the book, from Rowan’s secrets coming out to the poison garden and the malicious pranks to the creepy dolls, I knew I needed a twisty sugar filled treat. I recently came across babka, a sweet braided bread that is Jewish in origin (at least that’s what google says), and decided to try the New York Times version of Chocolate Babka. It is time and labor intensive but SO good. I’ll add the recipe here, because I’ve used all my free New York Times Cooking reads. I will strongly suggest to google a video for cutting and braiding/twisting it, because the instructions were hard to picture. This recipe makes 2 loafs and 1 loaf can be frozen for a later time if you don’t need two.
½ c whole milk
1 package ( ¼ oz or 7 grams) active dry yeast
1/3 c sugar, plus a pinch
4 ¼ c all-purpose flour, more as needed
1 ½ tsp fine sea salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp grated lemon zest (optional)
½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
4 large eggs, at room temperature, lightly beaten
10 Tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing bowls and pans
½ c sugar
¾ heavy cream half-and-half
pinch kosher salt
6 oz extra bittersweet chocolate, 66-74% cocoa, coarsely chopped
8 Tbsp unsalted butter, diced, at room temperature
2 tsp vanilla extract
½ c all-purpose flour
3 Tbsp sugar
1 ½ Tbsp cocoa powder
½ tsp kosher salt
4 ½ Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1/3 c mini semisweet chocolate chips
2/3 c sugar
- Prepare the dough: In a small saucepan or a bowl in the microwave, warm the milk until it’s lukewarm but not hot (about 110 degrees). Add yeast and a pinch of sugar and let sit for 5-10 minutes, until slightly foamy.
- In an electric mixer fitted with the dough hook, or in a food processor, mix together flour, 1/3 c sugar, salt, vanilla, lemon zest (if using), and nutmeg. Beat or process in the yeast mixture and eggs until the dough comes together in a soft mass, about 2 minutes. If the dough sticks to the side of the bowl and doesn’t come together, add a tablespoon more flour at a time until it does, beating very well in between additions.
- Add half the butter and beat or pulse until the dough is smooth and elastic. 3-5 minutes scraping down the sides of the bowl with a spatula as needed. Beat in the rest of the butter and continue to beat or pulse until the dough is smooth and stretchy, another 5-7 minutes. Again, if the dough sticks to the sides of the bowl, add additional flour, 1 tablespoon at a time.
- Butter a clean bowl, form the dough into a ball and roll it around in the bowl so all sides are buttered. Cover the bowl with a clean towel and let it rise in a warm, draft-free place (inside of a turned-off oven with the oven light on is good) until it puffs and rises, about 1-2 hours. It may not double in bulk but it should rise.
- Press the dough down with your hands, recover the bowl and refrigerate overnight.
- Prepare the filling: In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine sugar, cream and salt. Simmer, stirring occasionally until sugar completely dissolves, about 5 minutes. Scrape mixture into a bowl. Stir in chocolate, butter, and vanilla until smooth. Let cool to room temperature. Filling can be made up to a week ahead and stored, covered, in the fridge. Let come to room temperature before using.
- Prepare the streusel: In a bowl, stir together flour, sugar, cocoa powder, and salt. Stir in melted butter until it is evenly distributed and forms large, moist crumbs. Stir in the chocolate chips. Streusel can be prepared up to 3 days ahead and stored, covered, in the fridge.
- Prepare the syrup: In a small saucepan combine sugar and 2/3 cup water. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, then simmer for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally until the sugar dissolves.
- Butter two 9 inch loaf pan, then line with parchment paper, leaving 2 inches of paper hanging over on the sides to use as handles later.
- Remove dough from refrigerator and divide in half. On a floured surface, roll one piece into a 9 x 17 inch rectangle. Spread with half the filling. Starting with a long side, roll into a tight coil. Transfer the coil onto a dish towel or piece of plastic wrap and stick it in the freezer for 10 minutes. Repeat with the other piece of dough.
- Slice one of the dough coils in half lengthwise to expose the filling. Twist the halves together as if you were braiding them, then fold the braid in half so it’s about 9 inches long. Place into a prepare pan, letting it curl around itself if it’s a little too long for the pan. Cover loosely with a clean kitchen towel and let it rise in a warm place to 1 – 1 ½ hours, until puffy (it won’t quite double). Alternatively, you can cover the pans with plastic wrap and let them rise isn the refrigerator overnight; bring them back up to room temperature for an hour before baking.
- When you’re ready to bake, heat the oven to 350° F. Use your fingers to clump streusel together and scatter all over the tops of the cakes. Transfer to oven and bake until a tester goes into the cakes without any rubbery resistance and comes out clean, 40-50 minutes. The cakes will also sound hollow if you unmold them and tap on the bottom. An instant-read thermometer will read between 185-210°.
- As soon as the cakes come out of the oven, use a skewer or paring knife to pierce them all over going all the way to the bottom of the cakes, and then pour the syrup on top of the cakes, making sure to use half the syrup for each cake.
- Transfer to wire rack to cool completely before serving.