The Savage Garden: Cultivating Carnivorous Plants

With their perfumed fragrance and lovely colors, pitcher plants beckon, inviting insects to partake of what promises to be the most delicious nectar nestled in the depths of their beguiling wide open red and green lined mouth. But the slope is slippery and tiny plant tentacles pull the insect down into dark depths making escape impossible.

The devious bladderwort works in an equivalent way. Floating on the water, it looks like a pile of seaweed or swamp muck with small yellow flowers. What could be less threatening? Au contraire, when an unsuspecting insect hits the tentacles on the plant’s bladder, it gets sucked in, the trap snaps shut and begins emitting secretions to dissolve its prey.

And don’t even get us started on Venus fly traps–those pretty little devils.

If it all sounds like a horror movie, there’s good reason. Movie makers have long seen carnivorous plants as evil aggressors.

“I have a list of over 100 films and TV shows that featured real carnivorous plants as well as monster plants,” said Peter D’Amato, founder and owner of California Carnivores in Sebastopol, California, one of the largest purveyors of carnivorous plants in the world. “The most famous are Little Shop of Horrors, Day of the Triffids, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Regular films have also had guest appearances of carnivorous plants like Katherine Hepburn feeding ‘Lady’ live bugs in Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer.”

But relax. These plants may be deadly for insects, but according to D’Amato, no people-eating plants discovered – at least not yet. Though there was a scare in Europe in the 1870s when rumors ran rampant about the Man-Eating Tree of Madagascar which was fed young female sacrifices.

D’Amato has been a carnivorous plant devotee (he calls them CPs) since he was a kid in the 1960s living in New Jersey and ordered Venus flytraps through a magazine called “Famous Monsters”.

“They promptly died,” he recalls. “Then a classmate told me he knew where CPs grew in the Pine Barrens and showed me pitcher plants and sundews, and I became addicted.”

So addicted in fact that D’Amato opened California Carnivores in 1989 and almost immediately, despite the skepticism of old time growers, the nursery was a success. He is also the author of “The Savage Garden: Cultivating Carnivorous Plants” (Ten Speed Press), about the cultivation of carnivores.

The book garnered awards from the American Horticultural Society and the Garden Writers Association of America, has long been the go-to for those interested in growing carnivorous plants. The latest edition (there have been ten so far) was fully revised to include the latest developments and discoveries in the carnivorous plant world, making it the most accurate and up to date book of its kind. Besides that D’Amato is also writing a horror novel called “From a Crevice in Hell”, a botanical thriller about the mythological Lucifer Plant from Hell.

“While folks are attracted to CP at first because they don’t just sit there and actively lure, catch, kill and eat insects and other little animals,” said D’Amato, “ultimately it’s their unusual beauty that wins growers over.”

“Since CP grow around the world they require different climates, but most CP come from temperate areas and the North America has more varieties than any place else in the world, especially the southeast,” said D’Amato. “So they require warm summers with a lot of sun and chilly to frosty winter dormancy. Some are native to the Great Lakes area and can be grown outdoors especially in bog gardens.

“Plants like Venus flytraps do best in sunny places during spring, summer and autumn and then must be placed someplace cool and even frosty for winter dormancy when they rest. Purified water or rainwater is best for them. Tropical CPs thrive in tanks as potted plants under grow lights and a few are able to adjust to sunny windowsills.”

But even bad plants can do good. Besides beauty, carnivores may have a healthy side effect.

“Carnivora is an herbal product used to fight tumors and other growths–Ronald Reagan was on it–and it’s produced from Venus flytraps, and tropical pitcher plants that grow in Southeast Asia,” said D’Amato, noting that it’s been used to treat various ailments from menstruation discomfort to antiseptic use.”

Above carnovire photos are courtesy of California Carnivores. and Peter D’Amato’s photo is courtesy of Ten Speed Press.

Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis

A compelling look at three talented women and their youthful time, separately, in Paris and the great city’s influence on their lives.

It reads like the plot of a novel – three women from different backgrounds spend time in the early 20s in Paris, returning to the U.S. transformed. One, raised in an upper crust East Coast society family and named “Deb of the Year,” would become the very polished and popular wife of a handsome president doomed to be assassinated. The middle class girl from a North Hollywood family became, after her Paris sojourn, a well-respected writer. The third, though she was raised as an African American in the segregated south, came from an upper middle class family and spent time in Manhattan studying at a private school. She eventually would be acquitted of murder as a member of a radical fringe group.

“If you reduce them to identity labels, they are the soul of diversity: a Catholic debutante, a Jewish intellectual, an African-American revolutionary, from the East Coast, the West Coast, and the South,” writes Alice Kaplan, a  Sterling Professor of French and Director of the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University in her book, “Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis” (University of Chicago Press 2013; $26). “They have often been reduced to their images: a sheath dress and a double strand of pearls, a mane of black hair with a white streak, an afro and a raised fist.”

Kaplan explores the time each spent in Paris and how those experiences shaped them, making all three cultural icons and bringing all both fame – for Kennedy and Sontag and controversy – for Davis.

Kaplan, the author of such books as French Lessons, and Looking for “The Stranger,” earned a Ph.D. from Yale University with a major in French and a minor in philosophy and is a recipient of the French Légion d’Honneur as well the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in History (for The Collaborator) and the Henry Adams Prize (for The Interpreter).

“I wanted to find that existential threshold where you start to see what you can do with what you’ve been given,” Kaplan of this examination of a period in each woman’s life. And, Kaplan points out, while the men who spent time in France and came back in some ways different – think Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer, women like Kennedy, Sontag and Davis “have not had a place in the great American tradition of expatriate literature.”

Until now.

Author explores the partnership between Chicago chefs and the farmers who grow food for them

The stories behind 25 Midwest Farms and Farmers as well as the chefs who use their produce.

Profiling 25 Midwestern farms in her book Locally Grown: Portraits of Artisanal Farms from America’s Heartland, Anna Blessing tells the story of each including its history, roots in the community, scale, production and inner workings as well as the premiere Chicago chefs such as Rick Bayless, Stephanie Izard, Sarah Stegner and Paul Kahan who rely upon these food producers for what they cook in their restaurants.

“I wanted to share the stories of these amazing farmers,” said Blessing, a writer and photographer who also authored Locally Brewed: Portraits of Craft Breweries from America’s Heartland. “It’s so easy to forget where our food comes from and to take for granted the miracle of growing food. I want to celebrate the care that these farmers put into their craft, the respect they have for this work and the ways in which the intentional effort has had and continues to have both a dramatic and positive impact on the way our food tastes and the health of the environment in which it’s grown.”

Taking photos and talking to the chefs who buy from the farmers as well as getting the recipes they create from the farms, Blessing devotes a chapter to each farm but further organizes them into categories. 

For instance in Refashioning the Family Farm, Blessing takes us to seven farms including the fourth generation Gunthorp Farm in LaGrange, Indiana where Craig Gunthorp determined to keep raising pigs even though in 1988 he was selling them for less than the price his grandfather had gotten during the Depression. But then, after speaking about sustainable agriculture at a conference, Gunthorp was given the number of a restaurant looking for a pig farmer. The number turned out to be the late Charlie Trotter’s, who owned the famed restaurant bearing his name.

Part 2: Moving from the City to the Farm takes us to such farmers as Abra Berens who co-owned Bare Knuckle Farm in Northport, Michigan who attended Ballymaloe Cookery School in Southern Ireland. Berens,  who was nominated for Best Chef in the Great Lakes Region by the James Beard Foundation, is also the author of two bestselling cookbooks, Grist: A Practical Guide to Cooking Grains, Beans, Seeds, and Legumes and Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables. She now is the chef at Granor Farm in Three Oaks, Michigan.

Then Blessing takes us in the opposite direction with farming that moves to the city. Here she profiles, among others, Rick Bayless, owner and chef at Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, Lena Brava, Tortazo, and XOCO restaurants and also hosted the TV show One Plate at a Time, who has a 1000-square-foot production farm in his backyard.

“The chefs are so essential to promoting locally based eating because they are the ones with the voice and the ones who we as eaters look up to and want to learn from,” said Blessing, who in her book also tells the best places to find, buy and eat sustainably grown food and details on visiting the farms in her book. “When they say this is the best way to grow food and these are the farmers to support, it’s very strong endorsement.”

Short on time? Sarah Copeland has a recipe for you

              Want a dinner that tastes like Saturday night when you’ve had all day to putter around in the kitchen on a Wednesday? Don’t despair. Sarah Copeland, author Feast, has a new cookbook out that’s just right for you.

              In Every Day Is Saturday: Recipes + Strategies for Easy Cooking, Every Day of the Week (Chronicle, $29.95), Copeland, a former food director of Real Simple magazine, restaurant chef and mother of two young children as well as a New York Times contributor, zeroes in time management, maintaining a well-stocked pantry, and cooking dishes that do double duty. She also emphasizes healthy.

              Her recipes with prep time and total cooking time help you decide what fits in with your busy day.

              Reprinted from Every Day Is Saturday by Sarah Copeland with permission by Chronicle Books, 2019

MIGHTY YOGURT BOWLS WITH CURRANTS AND PEACHES

PREP TIME: 5 MINUTES

TOTAL TIME: 5 MINUTES or overnight

SERVES 4

·      ¾ cup whole milk, or almond, coconut, or
hazelnut milk

·      2 to 3 tsp pure maple syrup

·      1 tsp pure vanilla extract

·      2 to 3 Tbsp chia seeds

·      Plain yogurt, for serving

·     Currants, peaches, berries, honey, or maple
syrup, for topping

Quick-to-make chia pudding, with the right touch, can turn an everyday yogurt bowl into something beautiful and irresistibly creamy.

The secret is to keep the chia mixture loose, and treat it like a condiment, rather than the main event. (Chia thickens as it sets in liquid, so you’ll need to add fewer seeds if you plan to let it sit overnight.) Serve this creamy, coconut-milk goodness with loads of fresh fruit, as a quick morning breakfast bowl that’s nearly ready to go when you wake up.

Combine the milk, maple syrup, vanilla, and 2 tablespoons chia seeds in a mason jar or any glass container with a tight-fitting lid. Give it a shake or a stir and refrigerate up to overnight, or stir in the remaining chia to thicken if you plan to use right away. Spoon the chia mixture over yogurt, and top with fresh fruit and honey or maple syrup.

By the Grace of the Game: The Holocaust, a Basketball Legacy, and an Unprecedented American Dream

“My birth was planned around Judaism and basketball,” writes Dan Grunfeld in the opening paragraph of his book. “It’s an appropriate testament to what I was inheriting. When I was born in 1984, my dad was an NBA player for the New York Knicks. My parents scheduled my C-section delivery to take place between two long road trips so he could be present for both my birth and my bris, the Jewish ritual of circumcision on the eighth day of life.

            17-year-old Lily Grunfeld survived the Holocaust by hiding in a crowded attic room in a burned-out building in Budapest. She was twice saved by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. Once when he issued false citizenship documents to Hungarian Jews in Hungary and, then again at the end of the war, when he convinced Nazi guards not to gun down the remaining 80,000 Jews still alive in the Budapest Ghetto.

            After the war when Anyu returned to the home she had shared with her parents and siblings in a small Transylvanian village in Romania near the Hungarian border, it had been looted and almost everything was gone. Her parents and five siblings had died at Auschwitz. She had also lost aunts and cousins.

            All that was left, tucked away out of sight in a drawer, was a spoon.

            Grunfeld is turning 98 later this year. She doesn’t harbor bitterness and hatred—though who could blame her if she did? Even though after moving to the U.S. with her husband, she lost her oldest son who died of leukemia.

            “My grandmother certainly has an incredible attitude and approach to life,” says Dan Grunfeld, author of “By the Grace of the Game: The Holocaust, a Basketball Legacy, and an Unprecedented American Dream” (Triumph Books 2022; $28) about the woman he calls Anyu (Hungarian for mother). “She believes it’s not what happens to you in life, it’s how you respond. She believes it’s important to be true to your values and who you are and to stay positive.”

            Arriving in New York in 1964, the family including their surviving son Ernie and daughter Rebecca, didn’t know the language or customs of their new country. Eight-year-old Ernie also didn’t know anything about the game of basketball but he gravitated to the playgrounds of New York City where kids were shooting baskets. It was an opportunity, he thought, to learn English and to make friends.

            It turned out to be more than that. Ernie Grunfeld was really, really good at this American game. So good in fact that within ten years of moving to the U.S. he had won two gold medals—one for playing basketball with Team USA at the 1975 Pan American Games and the other in the 1976 in the Summer Olympics in Montreal. Drafted into the NBA to play for Milwaukee Bucks, he went on to play for the Kansas City Kings and then the New York Knicks. Once his playing days were done, he worked in administration rising through the ranks to become president and general manager of the Knicks and then the general manager of the Bucks. He followed that up with 16 years as president of basketball operations for the Washington Wizards.

            It was indeed a basketball family.

            “My birth was planned around Judaism and basketball,” writes Dan Grunfeld in the opening paragraph of his book. “It’s an appropriate testament to what I was inheriting. When I was born in 1984, my dad was an NBA player for the New York Knicks. My parents scheduled my C-section delivery to take place between two long road trips so he could be present for both my birth and my bris, the Jewish ritual of circumcision on the eighth day of life. I’m sure thousands of Jews in New York City during the 1980s planned their sons’ bris ceremonies around Knicks games. My dad was almost certainly the only Jew actually playing in the Knicks game.”

            Indeed, Ernie Grunfeld was the only child of Holocaust survivors to ever play in the NBA.

            It’s Dan Grunfeld’s ability to move between the dark and light of life, a reflection surely of his grandmother’s philosophy, that makes this book so immensely readable. Dan Grunfeld also played basketball, both at Stanford University and then for nine years overseas professionally in Germany, Israel, and Spain. He even became a Romanian citizen to play in his grandmother’s native country.

            “My first professional game was in Germany, I was probably the only player who called his grandmother and asked her if it was okay to play there,” says Grunfeld. Anyu, being Anyu, of course said yes, telling him that you can’t blame the sons for what the fathers did.

            Growing up, Grunfeld was fascinated not only with his grandmother’s Eastern European cooking (“I eat so much sometimes that I get sick,” he says),  but also, when he was old enough, her tales of those early days. Stanford was just 25 minutes from where she lived and he would take notes when they talked or at least when he wasn’t eating.

            In that respect, he is unlike most of us who when young who don’t write things down and so lose the important stories of our elders. Indeed, I had a Romanian grandmother who loved to cook but I just ate and never recorded her times in her homeland and her journey to East Chicago and so all that is lost. Bravo to Grunfeld who felt that these stories were important enough to turn into a book. He did it for Anyu who doesn’t want people to forget the Holocaust and what happened to her family and so many families like hers. He did it to enshrine her story into written words. And he did it so that her courage could help all of us when things seem very dark.

            “My grandmother certainly has an incredible attitude and approach to life,” he says. “She’s such a remarkable person. I say if my grandmother can survive and be like this than there is hope for all of us.”

            When I ask Grunfeld if he misses basketball, he tells me that he misses what it was like playing the game when you’re playing at a high level and having success.  

            “I also understand that part of my life is over,” says Grunfeld who is married and is expecting the birth of his second son in a matter of weeks. “I’m at a point in my life where I realize I’m not coming back. But there are so many other ways you can integrate it into your life. You can watch it, read about it, and write about it.”

            Which, of course, is what he did.

            As for that spoon Anyu found. 75 years later she gave it to Dan who keeps it in the drawer next to his bed.  Sometime in the future, it most likely will be passed on to Dan’s son Solomon, named after his grandfather who died at Auschwitz.

For Dan Grunfeld’s events, click here.

Harlan Coben’s “Hold Tight” Now a Netflix Movie

From the Book Jacket

How well do you really know your child?

Tia and Mike Baye never imagined they’d spy on their kids. But their sixteen-year-old son Adam has been unusually distant lately, and after the suicide of his best friend Spencer Hill, they can’t help but worry. Within days of installing a sophisticated spy program on Adam’s computer they are jolted by a cryptic message from an unknown correspondent that shakes them to their core: “Just stay quiet and all safe.”

As if Mike Baye isn’t dealing with enough, he also learns that Lucas Loriman, the sweet kid who grew up next door, is in urgent need of a kidney transplant. As the boy’s doctor, Mike suddenly finds himself in possession of an explosive secret that threatens to rip the Loriman family apart at the seams.

Nearby, while browsing through an online memorial for Spencer, Betsy Hill discovers a surprising detail about the night of her son’s death. Before she can find out more, Adam disappears, taking the truth with him and sending shockwaves through the neighborhood.

As the lives of these families collide in tragic, unexpected, and violent ways, long-hidden connections in their small suburb begin to work their way to the surface. And when an unidentified Jane Doe is beaten to death not far away, those connections threaten to turn this quiet community upside down—and force these desperate parents to decide whether there is any line they won’t cross to protect those they love most in the world.

About Harlan Coben:

With over 75 million books in print worldwide, Harlan Coben is the #1 New York Times author of thirty three novels including WINTHE BOY FROM THE WOODSRUN AWAYFOOL ME ONCETELL NO ONE and the renowned Myron Bolitar series. His books are published in 45 languages around the globe.

Harlan is the creator and executive producer of several Netflix television dramas including STAY CLOSE, THE STRANGER, SAFE, THE FIVE, THE INNOCENT and THE WOODS. Harlan was also showrunner and executive producer for two French TV mini-series, UNE CHANCE DE TROP (NO SECOND CHANCE) and JUST UN REGARD (JUST ONE LOOK). KEINE ZWEIT CHANCE, also based on Harlan’s novel, aired in Germany on Sat1.

The Heights by Louise Candlish

              Ellen Saint knows she isn’t wrong but then how could she be right? After all the man she just spotted, Kieran Watts, can’t possibly be alive. That’s because two years ago she killed him.

              And so begins The Heights, the latest page turner by bestselling author Louise Candlish whose previous book Our House won the Crime & Thriller Book of the Year at the 2019 British Book Awards,

              Saint, a grieving mother, blames Watts for the death of her teenage son. The two teens were best friends and Watts, with all of his charm and deviousness, had corrupted her son and then been with him in the car when he perished. Though it’s been several years since Lucas died, Ellen isn’t ready to forgive. Indeed, whatever happened the first time she set out to destroy Kieran, she doesn’t intend to let that happen again.

              The following is a question and answer between Candlish and Northwest Indiana Times correspondent Jane Ammeson.

JA: The Heights is a revenge novel–and ultimately a very fulfilling one. What inspired it?

Louise Candlish: I had wanted to explore revenge for a while and had the idea of constructing that dynamic around a feud. I love feuds! Reaching for a fresh angle, I became intrigued by the dynamic between an overprotective tiger mother and her teenage son’s ‘bad influence’ best friend. It feels quite primal– having your golden boy stolen from you right under your nose.

JA: How do you plot your novels and how do you keep track of all the twists and turns?

LC: I always plot the main thriller story, the mechanics of the crime, before I start, and I loosely think through the structure and the order of the revelations. Because The Heights is a book within a book, I had a natural framework, which helped me keep my thoughts straight.

JA: Ultimately Ellen became a very likeable character and her pain was so palpable–did you base her character on someone you knew?

LC: That is good to hear as I was a little wary of readers reacting negatively to her because she is clearly neurotic and – how can I put it? – an over-reactor. But she is grieving the loss of a child and I think we all understand that could take us to the brink of human endurance. Even so, I’m surprised by how many people have said to me, ‘I’d do exactly the same if that were my child.’ I hope not!  She’s not based on anyone in particular, though some of the details of her overly involved behaviour are taken from my observations of fellow parents. She’s actually kind of how I would be if I allowed every catastrophic thought to grow, if I acted on every kneejerk emotion.

JA: What made you decide to write a book within a book like the way Ellen is telling the story in her writing class?

LC: I love this device, which appears in some of my favorite books, like Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. I think the conditions of the Covid lockdown, during which The Heights was written, had an impact on the structure. By writing a book within a book I was almost doubling my sense of control over the project, imposing order in the only way I could during a chaotic, uncertain time.

For more information, visit LouiseCandlish.com or connect with her on Twitter @Louise_Candlish.

Spooky and Scary: Beneath the Stairs

An abandoned octangular home hidden away from the main road, a mysterious door leading to a dark and haunted basement. What is beneath the stairs?

              A mysterious and abandoned octangular house, hidden in the woods, a mysterious disappearance, and tales of hauntings. A scary and spooky place indeed and one that attracts—no make that lures—Clare and Abby, two young friends, into taking a peek inside.

              Or rewind even further, into the memories of author Jennifer Fawcett, a playwright who worked with a theater company in Canada before moving to upstate New York to teach at Skidmore College. Fawcett, the author of the just released Beneath the Stairs, accepted a dare from a friend to participate in NaNoWriMo about a decade ago. Short for National Novel Writing Month, it’s a way for writers to jumpstart the process by setting a goal of completing a 50,000=page book within a month.

              Make that a decade for Fawcett. That’s how long it took her to complete Beneath the Stairs as there were plays to write, a baby that came along, a move to upstate New York,  and classes to teach. But what emerged was a story based upon her own experience when she was 13 of riding bikes with three friends to explore an old decrepit octangular home.

              “We didn’t stay inside for long,” says Fawcett, who has an MFA from the Iowa Playwrights Workshop. “I remember it being very cold.”

              Decades later, that short visit and the feelings of cold and creepiness flowed into Fawcett’s story about the aftermath of Clare and Abby’s visits. Long estranged from her childhood friend,  Clare is living in Chicago when she receives a call that Abby is hospitalized after attempting to commit suicide in the basement of the octangular house. Clare, who has had a miscarriage and is seeing her relationship dissolve, reluctantly returns home. There are all sorts of  reasons why she wants to avoid the place where she grew up and one of them is Abby’s older handsome brother.

              Trying to understand what happened to Abby leads Clare back to the octangular house. As she remembers from all those years ago, there is an icy chill to the house and a feeling of unseen beings. Almost irresistibly, she’s drawn to the basement where the distilled evil of the house seems centered. The door to the basement is an animate object, opening on its own, and more frightening, occasionally locking in someone who has walked down the stairs into the basement.

              In the book, Fawcett added a widow’s walk to the top though there wasn’t one when she and her friends visited when they were 13. She recently found out that home originally had one. She also came to discover, after the book was published, that the names she used for characters were the actual names of people associated with the home. It was almost as if the house was channeling its history through Fawcett when she was writing. Spooky stuff indeed.

              Fawcett isn’t necessarily a believer in the supernatural but we both get a slight shiver when I ask her if she would  go into the house, which is located in Canada, now if she had the chance.

              “I can’t,” she says. “It burned down a few years ago. On Halloween.”

This book story previous ran in the Northwest Indiana Times.

This Might Hurt

         

          While her sister Nat is successfully climbing the corporate ladder in Boston, Kit has embraced life on a remote Maine island where she enjoys the structure imposed by the leaders of Wisewood. For most, Wisewood is a temporary respite from the world—a place for self-improvement and a total immersion into life totally off the grid as they work at maximizing themselves. One of the requirements for anyone staying  there is having no contact with friends and family for the length of their stay and not using their computers and cell phones. Not that they easily could. As Nat quickly discovers, cell service on the island is practically non-existent.

           None of this daunts Kit who is fully committed to Wisewood. Still reeling from the death of her mother, she’s excited when she is asked to join the staff even though it means undergoing a ritualistic—and painful—hazing. And she’s less than happy when Nat shows up to check on her.

           For her part, Natalie senses the hostility of the staff from the beginning when she shows up to take the boat to the island. It only gets worse when she arrives. The rooms have no curtains and she constantly feels as though she’s being watched, her cell phone disappears, and she sees her sister seemingly controlled by Wisewood’s leader, a woman known as the Teacher.

          In her first novel, the USA Today bestseller Darling Rose Gold author Stephanie Wrobel explored the relationship between a mother and the daughter that she had systematically made ill for the attention and praise it got her.

          “For this book I wanted to take a deeper look at cults and what makes them so appealing,” says Wrobel about her second novel, the aptly named This Might Hurt. “If you dive deep enough, you find the shades, it’s not all black and white. I think the major commonality when it comes to cults is that people are searching.”

          Told from three different points of view—Kit, Nat, and an unidentified woman who was psychologically and physically abused by a demanding sadistic father—Wrobel, who is from Chicago but is now living in England, shows us how each character developed and what led them to the island. And, what, ultimately happens to all three when the time comes to make choices.

These Toxic Things

          Michaela Lambert has a career I’ve never heard of and indeed doesn’t quite exist yet (but someone should start doing it) as a digital archaeologist for a new start-up run by her boyfriend. No make that ex-boyfriend. Well, like everything in Rachel Howzell Hall’s These Toxic Things, a wonderfully intricate mystery about the secrets that we keep and those that others keep from us, the relationship is complicated.

          But Mickie, as she’s nicknamed, loves her job. She’s a thoroughly modern woman but she loves the curios of the past. For Memory Bank she catalogues items that her clients deem most valuable in highlighting important aspects of their life. Unfortunately, Nadia Denham, her new client and owner of Beautiful Things Curiosities Shoppe, a fascinating store in a somewhat seedy strip mall, is found dead. Denham has a plastic bag over her head and left a suicide note but the death looks suspicious none the less. And there is of course, the shark-like developer who wants to buy the land and bulldoze it for his own upscale development.

          Since the dead woman already purchased the Mega-Memory Package, Mickie decides to go ahead and create the memory book and suddenly finds herself in a sinister, shadowy world. In ways, Mickie is sheltered, she lives in a tree-lined Los Angeles neighborhood behind the pretty home owned by her loving parents. Her uncle, a LAPD cop is equally protective and dedicated to her well-being. She graduated from USC, over-borrows her mother’s expensive and beautiful clothes and the two giggle over her stories of boyfriends while chowing down tacos. And yet even in this cocooned bubble, there are secrets as well.

          Once entering the world of Denham’s beautiful things, she makes good friends at the nearby diner but she’s also suddenly receiving threatening notes and feels as those someone who knows where she lives.

          Hall, a self-described control freak and thoroughly plots out her numerous novels (she has one already written coming out next summer and another next year), draws upon her own life and experiences, the stories she hears from friends and co-workers, and what she reads including newspapers, blogs, and social media.

.         She and her college bound daughter share clothes, munch on popcorn while gossipping, and she has some secrets she will in the future share with her—though none, I’m sure, are as stunning as the one Mickie will discover about her family.

          “Writers are like magpies—we grab shiny things and take them with us,” Hall says and of course that’s true, everything is material for writers. Hall is able to keep track of her complex novels because she is all about organization and has a daily to-do list.

          “If I do something that’s not on the list, I add it later so I can cross it off,” she says. “We all have our rituals.”

          These Toxic Things is one of an emerging mystery subgenre—that of feisty, independent, and intelligent Black woman who while bravely finding her way in the world also has her vulnerabilities.

          “It’s a great awakening of Black female mystery writers, who burst out about three years ago,” says Hall.

          It’s a very welcome one as well.

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