The Orchid Thief

The Orchid ThiefThe Orchid Thief
by Susan Orlean
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9780449003718
Publication Date: January 4, 2000
Pages: 300
Publisher: Ballantine Books

A modern classic of personal journalism, The Orchid Thief is Susan Orlean’s wickedly funny, elegant, and captivating tale of an amazing obsession. Determined to clone an endangered flower—the rare ghost orchid Polyrrhiza lindenii—a deeply eccentric and oddly attractive man named John Laroche leads Orlean on an unforgettable tour of America’s strange flower-selling subculture, through Florida’s swamps and beyond, along with the Seminoles who help him and the forces of justice who fight him. In the end, Orlean—and the reader—will have more respect for underdog determination and a powerful new definition of passion.

In this new edition, coming fifteen years after its initial publication and twenty years after she first met the “orchid thief,” Orlean revisits this unforgettable world, and the route by which it was brought to the screen in the film Adaptation, in a new retrospective essay.


The first thing you need to know is that this is a book about Florida and orchidists.  I am a (born and bred) Floridian raised in a family of orchidists.

I preface this review with these facts because there’s going to be a strongly sentimental bias to my feelings about this book.  I can’t possibly be objective about either subject, because — let’s call it “Old Florida” even though I’m young enough to have missed out on the truly old Florida — is what my soul is made of.  If it were a visible thing it would be full of scrub forest, swamp land and the Gulf of Mexico (and hush puppies and iced tea).  And no way could I be objective about orchids; I literally grew up in greenhouses.  My mother’s flower shop, which my father’s greenhouses and laboratory were attached to, was a road, a small-town library parking lot, and a dirt alley away from our home.  I’m pretty sure were there a way to tally up time spent at home vs. the shop, the shop would actually win.  And there are very few memories of my dad that pop into my head that don’t involve him watering his orchids, replanting his orchids, or bent over his sanitised glove box – a design of his own creation – or… the least pleasant from a sensory aspect: him cooking up his growing media, which often consisted of combinations of vegetable and fruit never, ever, designed to be together, like bananas and potatoes (omg, the smell).  I have lost hours of my life to greenhouses sprinkled throughout Southwest Florida (and Illinois), and orchid shows, before I was old enough to be left to my own devices.

So believe me when I say that, other than my pedantic nitpicking over calling Florida’s ecosystem a jungle, Susan Orlean nailed both the state and the crazy orchid loving people in it.  Including herself in the story creates a nice foil for the eccentric mix of people that make up the less civilised places of Florida (which is pretty much all the places).  My sister would be a better judge of how close she came to the personalities of the players; I recognised the names but given my relationship with orchids (YOU MAY CALL ME DEATH), I was only ever a spectator, and a pretty disinterested as only a teenager can be, but Orlean captures the atmosphere, the close-knit community and the cattiness of the orchid world perfectly.

According to the publisher and book flap, this is a book about John Larouche (whom I’d never heard of until I read this), but really, it’s about all orchidists and their often unfathomable passion for a plant that is, objectively, ugly. Until it flowers, and then it’s spectacular.  Specifically, this book is about the Ghost Orchid, a Florida native known only to live in a very few spots in the Fakahatchee Strand.  A plant that consists of nothing but roots and a flower, no leaves.  While Larouche is absent for much of the book, the Ghost Orchid is always present. This is a good thing because I doubt anybody could take an awful lot of a character like Larouche.

I could meander on in this review for quite some time, but I wouldn’t really be talking about the book, so I’ll just say: it was good; it was enjoyable and well written and enlightening.  If eccentric characters a la Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil appeal to you along with the swampy, humid, atmosphere of Florida, you might find something to like in this read.

On a slightly related side note, my father passed away on this date in 2004, so the read felt especially timely for me.  What made it even more poignant though, was what I found when doing a bit of googling about the Ghost Orchid; it seems Larouche was not entirely correct when he said nobody could breed the Ghost Orchid (breed, not clone, which is what Larouche was trying to do):  it turns out my daddy could, and did.  I found this except on an orchid site out of Delray Beach called HBI Orchids:

The Ghost Orchid, Polyrrhiza lindeni (old school name).  We at HBI have been working on growing ghost orchids from seed for over 28 years ever since we first bought 3 ghost orchids flasks from Larry Evans.  Larry did curating and flasking work for the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota. Selby once green housed the top premier specimens of this Florida species.  The ghost orchid parents used by Larry originated in the Fakahatchee Strand and were first bred by him many years before ghost orchids were designated as an endangered species.  Fakahatchee ghost orchids with their longer frog-legs/tendrils and ghostly all-white flower surpass the truncated short-tendril inferior class lindeni green-flower ghost orchid pretenders named Dendrophylax sallei from Cuba and Dominican Republic in any competition and will always be the more valuable type of this vanishing species to own. 

I clearly remember my dad doing Selby’s lab/flask work; at that time they couldn’t do it themselves without contamination (orchid seed has to be handled in a completely sterile environment, sprinkled across growing medium in sealed, sterile flasks; otherwise just about any microbe floating in the air will overtake and kill the seedlings before they can start), so they’d asked him to do it in his lab.  But I never knew they were ghost orchids or how special they are.  So tip of the hat to Orlean for leading me back to my father in more ways than I bargained on.

Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories: How Peter Parley Laid a Ghost

The Valancourt Book of ​Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories: Volume OneThe Valancourt Book of ​Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories: Volume One
by Tara Moore (Editor)
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781943910564
Publication Date: January 1, 2016
Pages: 291
Genre: Fantasy, Fiction, Historical
Publisher: Valancourt Books

The first-ever collection of Victorian Christmas ghost stories, culled from rare 19th-century periodicals

During the Victorian era, it became traditional for publishers of newspapers and magazines to print ghost stories during the Christmas season for chilling winter reading by the fireside or candlelight. Now for the first time thirteen of these tales are collected here, including a wide range of stories from a diverse group of authors, some well-known, others anonymous or forgotten. Readers whose only previous experience with Victorian Christmas ghost stories has been Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” will be surprised and delighted at the astonishing variety of ghostly tales in this volume.


My first thought as I started reading this – a story aimed at Victorian children – was that the writing shines a sorry light on the state of today’s education.  I doubt many children today would be able to pass a reading comprehension quiz based on this story, purely based on the vocabulary.  I could be wrong, but the writing here is certainly more sophisticated than that of most of today’s books aimed at adults.

How Peter Parley Laid a Ghost by Anonymous was better than Conan Doyle’s Captain of the Pole-Star; more interesting, amusing, and frankly, better written.  But it’s still not a true ghost story; it’s a morality tale aimed at the folly of superstition.  In this context, it’s a brilliant story; in the context of a spooky ghost story … not so much.

The Santa Suit

The Santa SuitThe Santa Suit
by Mary Kay Andrews
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9781250279316
Publication Date: September 28, 2021
Pages: 210
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: St. Martin's Press

When newly-divorced Ivy Perkins buys an old farmhouse sight unseen, she is definitely looking for a change in her life. The Four Roses, as the farmhouse is called, is a labor of love—but Ivy didn't bargain on just how much labor. The previous family left so much furniture and so much junk, that it's a full-time job sorting through all of it.

At the top of a closet, Ivy finds an old Santa suit—beautifully made and decades old. In the pocket of a suit she finds a note written in a childish hand: it's from a little girl who has one Christmas wish, and that is for her father to return home from the war. This discovery sets Ivy off on a mission. Who wrote the note? Did the man ever come home? What mysteries did the Rose family hold?

Ivy's quest brings her into the community, at a time when all she wanted to do was be left alone and nurse her wounds. But the magic of Christmas makes miracles happen, and Ivy just might find more than she ever thought possible: a welcoming town, a family reunited, a mystery solved, and a second chance at love.


This book had a dubious beginning with a main character that was flat and wooden, a romantic interest that was a little bit too forward at the start, and a charming house, dog, fabulous Christmas decorations, and lovely small-town friendliness holding it together.

At just over 50%, Ivy finally started acting like a human being.  I kept expecting some big reveal about her childhood that would explain her complete lack of emotion about anything and everything, but it never happened.  This is one of those rare times when a little introspection on the part of the MC might have helped the reader develop some empathy and understanding, but without it, I just really didn’t connect with Ivy, with one exception: her scenes with Lawrence felt sincere and were the only times when it seemed Ivy came alive to any degree.

Phoebe’s side story with Cody worked out pretty much exactly the way I thought it would, although their meet-cute was a nice touch.

I’d have liked to have a seen a little more resolution concerning her relationship with the woman who owned the candy company – that felt unfinished to me.

The romantic ending of the story felt pretty rushed and awfully optimistic, (this coming from someone who’s relationship could be accused of being rushed and optimistic) but it’s a Christmas novella, so I guess I’m meant to just go with it.

But most of all, and the reason I ended up giving this story 3.5 stars instead of 3, I loved the back story about Bob and Betty Rae.  I love how they never lost their joy around the holidays, how they made such a quiet impact on the town during their lifetimes, and above all, I loved that they were Jewish.  NOT because of any religious nonsense, but because they were able to be the bright spark of the Christmas season for this small town without compromising their own faith.  I like reading stories about people coming together in the middle, rather than having to be one way or the other, and about being able to celebrate lots of different traditions without the stigma of turning your back on your own.  It was an unexpected twist I enjoyed, and let’s face it, I totally fell for all the talk about vintage ornaments and bubble lights.

For a story that started off with so little potential, it ended up being a sweet and somewhat charming holiday tale.

No Escape Claws (Second Chance Cat Mystery, #6)

No Escape ClawsNo Escape Claws
by Sofie Ryan
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9781101991244
Series: Second Chance Cat Mystery #6
Publication Date: January 29, 2019
Pages: 287
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Berkley

It’s fall in North Harbor, Maine, where Sarah owns a charming secondhand shop and sells lovingly refurbished items of all kinds. The shop is always bustling–and not just because a quirky team of senior-citizen detectives works out of it and manages to get in even more trouble than Sarah’s rough-and-tumble rescue cat, Elvis.

A cold case heats up when young Mallory Pearson appears at the shop. Mallory’s father is in prison for negligence after her stepmother’s mysterious death, but Mallory believes he is innocent and asks the in-house detectives to take on the case. With Sarah and Elvis lending a paw, the detectives decide to try to give Mallory’s father a second chance of his own.


A so-so entry.  Good character, great cat, small-town setting.  Sophie Ryan (who also writes as Sophie Kelly) is a decent writer, too, but the plotting was weak in No Escape Claws.

View Spoiler »


Overall, this is an enjoyable cozy series, as current cozies go.  This one just wasn’t one of the strongest.

The Truth About Animals

The Truth About AnimalsThe Truth About Animals
by Lucy Cooke
Rating: ★★★★★
isbn: 9780465094646
Publication Date: April 17, 2018
Pages: 337
Genre: Natural Science, Non-fiction
Publisher: Basic Books

What a ride.  Cooke covers 13 animals that the myths that have persisted about them over the centuries, debunking and setting the record straight.  I’m going to be straight with you: there are a lot of testicles involved, both in the myths and the realities.  I’d like to say that the truth is stranger than the fiction, but really, it’s a dead heat between the two when it comes to these particular animals.  By far the funniest, to me, was the beaver; the most tragic, the panda bears, which are, from the looks of it, being loved into extinction.

The writing is very engaging and there’s a lot of cheeky humor; hard to avoid when there are so many testicles involved.  I found myself reading so much of this aloud to MT, because much of what I read fascinated me.  Some of it I was already familiar with (penguin necrophilia, most of the information about the frogs) but a lot of it was new and I’m now totally fascinated by the possibilities of hippo sweat.

A fun read if you like animals and are an armchair scientist with a sense of humor.

Murder Once Removed (Genealogical Mystery, #1)

Murder Once RemovedMurder Once Removed
by S.C. Perkins
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9781250189035
Series: Genealogy Investigations #1
Publication Date: March 12, 2019
Pages: 319
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Minotaur Books

Lucy's client, Austin billionaire Gus Halloran, has announced on live television that Texas senator Caleb Applewhite might be responsible for the murder of Seth Halloran.

Of course, Lucy is a genealogist, so the murder in question took place back in 1849. And it's possible that another nineteenth-century Texas politician may, in fact, have wielded the death blow. Lucy is determined to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt who the guilty man is, but when her curiosity lands her at the scene of another murder - this time, in the present-day - she realises that the branches of some family trees shouldn't be shaken.

This sat on my TBR for ages, and then I started reading it in April and it started off slowly enough that it languished bedside for almost 4 months.  Everything else I wanted to pick up yesterday qualified for Halloween Book Bingo, so I decided to just finish this one off. This book ended up being much better than I expected.

Lucy is a professional genealogist, researching the family tree of one of the more prominent Austin families when she stumbles upon evidence that a long ago ‘accidental’ death of one of her client’s ancestors was actually a murder, paid for by a man with the initials C.A.  As she tried to find out more about the people surrounding this 150+ year old crime she discovers that someone in the here and now is very much invested in what happened all those days ago.

The story starts off slow, and frankly a little bit immaturely, but about half way through the story got interesting as it became apparent how the author was going to make a 150 year old crime relevant enough for someone to kill over in the present.  The writing also got better; it’s standard cozy fare, but it’s better than average once you get past the frivolous party attitude prevalent at the start.

The solution was, perhaps, trying too hard to be clever and Lucy’s little justifications of genealogy a bit tedious, but overall it was a mystery that surprised me.  I had no intention of reading another one after the first 75 pages, but by the end I found myself willing to read the second one to see where it goes.

The Virgin in the Ice (Brother Cadfael Chronicles, #5)

The Virgin in the IceThe Virgin in the Ice
by Ellis Peters
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9780708825839
Series: Chronicles of Brother Cadfael #5
Publication Date: March 12, 1984
Pages: 220
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Futura Books

Not the best Brother Cadfael I’ve read, but Hugh was back and that was worth 1/2 a star.  I might just even be in a grumpy reading mood, because, really, the mystery was crafted well enough, if the resolution was a tad weak.  The murderer had very little in the way of evidence against him, and yet Brother Cadfael and Hugh were quick to be certain.

Mostly, I disliked the protracted capture and battle scenes, especially as the captured was a 12 year old boy.  A different time and place, to be sure, but still not my cup of tea to read about the torture of children.

The ending was rather sweet though.

This was my third Christmas mystery in a row, and I’m beginning to feel like I should put a tree up.


The Vanishing Museum on the Rue Mistral (Provençal Mystery, #9)

The Vanishing Museum On The Rue MistralThe Vanishing Museum On The Rue Mistral
by M.L. Longworth
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780143135296
Series: Verlaque and Bonnet Provencal Mystery #9
Publication Date: April 13, 2021
Pages: 323
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Penguin Books

I never know how to describe these mysteries; they’re written just a little bit differently than the standard traditional or cozy fare, and they’re one of the few written in third person.  They’re much closer to golden age in writing style than anything contemporary; no internal dialogs, no tedious descriptions of … well, almost no tedious descriptions of random things.  The Bonnets are gourmands, so there’s rather a lot of eating going on, and they’re in Aix-en-Provence, so it all sounds rather amazing.  But otherwise, sparse and efficient writing.

Someone has stolen an entire museum.  True, it’s a small museum, but nonetheless no small feat, with no witnesses and no clues.  Then a main suspect is murdered and another grievously injured and still the police are left frustrated.  It comes down, in true mystery style, to pieces put together not by the police themselves, but by their family members and friends, and the while the ending isn’t shocking, it’s clever and satisfying.  Enough clues are there for the reader to see the general direction things are going, but details are left for the big reveal.

These books are comfortable, relaxing and enjoyable reads.

Gift of the Magpie (Meg Langslow, #28)

The Gift of the MagpieThe Gift of the Magpie
by Donna Andrews
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781250760128
Series: Meg Langslow #28
Publication Date: October 20, 2020
Pages: 206
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: St. Martin's Press

I loved this book.  I missed out on it during the Christmas season, but it’s cold and rainy here down under, so it was the perfect atmosphere in spite of it being the last day of July.

There’s always something wonderful going on in Caerphilly, even if a lot of people get bumped off.  This time it’s a Helping Hands program, started by the towns’ churches’ interfaith committee, to help out people with small (or large) projects, run by volunteers lending their individual expertise.  The biggest project of them all is a notorious hoarder who is in danger of having his home condemned and his family having him declared unfit to care for himself.  Meg and the mayor get the Helping Hands involved and are helping him deal with all his stuff and make repairs to his home when Meg finds him bashed in the head in his garage.

The mystery plot wasn’t one of her best, though Andrews did a great job keeping the reader in a state of reasonable doubt, but the rest of the story was just lovely. Not a word normally associated with mysteries, but it was.  Though there was less emphasis on the Christmas spirit in this one, I loved the ending and I loved the surprises.  The only thing that I noticed (beyond a couple of minor continuity errors) was that of all her books, this one was probably the one where the titular birds (magpies) had the smallest role.  The birds have never been pivotal to the plots, so it’s barely worth mentioning.  Have I mentioned how much I loved the ending?

I eagerly await the next two books.

Terns of Endearment (Meg Langslow, #26)

Terns of EndearmentTerns of Endearment
by Donna Andrews
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781250192974
Series: Meg Langslow #25
Publication Date: June 30, 2020
Pages: 304
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: St. Martin's Press

I read this book last year, but 2020 was a year full of cracks, and this book’s reading record and thoughts slipped through one of them.  I re-read it last night to brush up my memories.

I think the thing I love the most about Meg Langslow, after 26 books is her sheer competence.  Her family is quirky, and the mysteries are always good, but there just doesn’t seem to be any crisis that Meg, and the members of Caerphilly can’t handle with astonishing efficiency.

Terns of Endearment takes place on an educational wildlife cruise.  Her grandfather has been lured into a series of on-board lectures, but soon after the ship sets sail, a series of events leaves the ship stranded in the middle of the Atlantic ocean.  Dead bodies, sabotage, and on-board illnesses slow down the Langslow family not a bit and soon enough they’re sorting out the crew, the passengers and the mysteries.  It should be over-the-top, but it isn’t.  It’s inspiring.  I want to be Meg when I grow up.