Since it’s apple season, I thought it’d be fun to offer some interesting facts about apples and Kazakhstan. For instance, did you know botanists believe apples first evolved in Kazakhstan in the Tien Shan mountains? Today, huge forests of apple trees stretch on for miles there. The trees, over the course of millennia, have cross pollinated like crazy, in turn bringing forth thousands of varieties. Apples range in color from yellow to green to russet to red. In size they vary from as small as acorns to as large as baseballs. They vary in taste too, from inedibly bitter to grocery-store sweet.
Inspired by the Search for a Cure
In my novel, Harvesting the Sky, a special apple plays a key role. Horticulture professor Andre Damazy discovers a rare medicinal apple that can boost the immune system within a day. His personal goal is to bring back the apples to heal his mother who suffered a stroke. His larger goal is to grow more trees so he can bring its medicinal properties to the elderly and ill. But a threatening stranger stalks and vandalizes Andre’s work, hell bent on stopping him from succeeding. Why he does this is the overarching question of the story.
Years ago, I grew fascinated by the simple apple’s complex start in Kazakhstan. Here are some interesting facts I discovered.
1. Botanists estimate apples in Kazakhstan have been evolving for 4.5 million years.
2. The Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov catalogued Kazakhstan’s apple forests officially in 1929. Those writings appear in his book, The Five Continents.
3. Scientists believe the genus and species of Malus sieversii is the oldest species of apple.
4. Unusual flavors of Kazakh apples include hazelnut, honey, berry, and licorice.
5. The oldest apple trees in the Kazakh forests are 350-years-old.
6. Development during the Soviet Era destroyed 70-80% of the forests surrounding the city of Almaty.
7. The capital of Kazakhstan, Almaty, means “place of apples.”
Because the forests of Kazakhstan are so rich with cross-pollination, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that a white apple with medicinal healing power could emerge. So even though people refer to my apple as “magical,” I actually think of it as “speculative.” Regardless, what that new addition to botanical science launches is a whole basket of trouble for Andre. While nurturing his delicate saplings with care, he must passionately battle dark forces to bring his special apples to the world.
Wow, writing is a long journey but sometimes hard work pays off. I’m excited to let you know I was featured in the The Big Thrill magazine this month. It’s the magazine for the International Thriller Writers Association. Author Jaden Terrell did a terrific job writing the article. We talked about plants, books, writing, me learning guitar (ha!), and more.
Oh, and we touched on my new novel, Harvesting the Sky, which comes out on Tuesday, September 7, 2021. It’s about a botanist named Andre who’s trying to keep his medicinal apple trees safe from a mysterious stranger who threatens him and thwarts his work. He doesn’t know why anyone would do that but suspects it might be related to a deadly mistake from his past.
Mark Pryor, who’s the author of the Hugo Marston mysteries, said the novel was “superbly balanced and delightfully complex, with finely intertwined roots of mystery, romance, and the drive for personal redemption. Hugg tells a captivating story in a novel brimming with elegant prose and lurking menace, and Paris feels as alive as the unique plants that make this book such an original delight.” Thanks, Mark!
The story was a labor of love. It started as my MFA thesis almost 10 years ago. Then I tore it up, pieced it back together, reinvented it to be about plants, and stitched it together again. Then I shopped it around and couldn’t sell it. Finally, I did a couple years ago. That it’s seeing the light of day as a published novel sends my heart soaring. If you’d like to check it out, you can go here to buy or at your local bookstore.
And if you write yourself, don’t give up! You never know what the future brings.
Have a good day,
Recently, I interviewed mystery writer Paula Munier for the magazine,The Big Thrill. We had a fantastic fun chat by video that lasted well over an hour. We yakked on about her new book, The Hiding Place, her life in New Hampshire/Vermont, the doggie characters she puts in her stories, the writing life, and more. The whole conversation simply didn’t fit into my article so I thought I’d share a few choice bits from our conversation here. We talked about her dogs, why she puts all things French in her novels, and why gardening is important for one’s mental health.
A Dog’s Life
The dogs are one of my favorite aspects of these books. Can you talk about your canine inspirations? Obviously, Elvis and Susie Bear are actually trained search and rescue military dogs. But I know that Susie Bear bears a resemblance to your dog...
Yeah, my dog Bear. Here’s Bear… [Bear comes into view.]
What a good boy, I love Newfoundlands.
We were laughing because he’s about 85 pounds and my husband would like one of those 160-pound Newfoundlands. But we saw someone the other day who had a Newfoundland and he called his dog a “Pocket Newfie” because he’s only 85 pounds. A “Pocket Newfie.” [laughs]
Yeah, you need a giant pocket for that Newfie.
That was so funny. But during the pandemic, so we have three rescue dogs, and in Blind Search, the dog that Henry gets at the end, that dog he names Robin, who’s trained to keep him on track, that dog is based on our great Pyrenees Australian Shepherd mix named Bliss. She never moves, she’s on the couch. She only moves if there’s danger. Otherwise, she’s hanging out.
And during the pandemic, we were lucky enough to rescue a Malinois like Elvis. And although they said she won’t get much bigger, because Malinois are smaller than Shepherds, well, she’s enormous. [laughs] She’s also crazy athletic and super smart.
The biggest difference between my dogs and the dogs in the book are my dogs aren’t that well trained. It’s harder during the pandemic. Blondie may end up, there’s a great trainer in Massachusetts, he trained all kinds of dogs, so Blondie may go to boot camp at Mike’s to get her in shape. She’s pretty good but she’s insanely strong and so athletic. But she’s so much fun. It’s so nice to have a living breathing Elvis in the house. I’ve never had one so…
All Things French
I’m a total Francophile and I really like that you have a lot of references to France and French people in your books. What’s your relationship to France?
Well, my dad was in the military so I spent half my childhood in Europe. We were stationed in Germany and my mother took me to Paris when I was 12 because she loved Paris and we have a good French name, Munier. All my family, most of it, are all from Alsace-Lorraine. I went to high school in New Orleans so that sort of compounded the French thing. And I studied French. Now, my daughter and granddaughters live in Lozon. My granddaughters are native French speakers. So I have every reason to keep up my French. And I love the French. I’m an Anglophile and a Francophile. I watch all the Britbox and Acorn TV. And I watch all the French mysteries on MHz. So for me and my mother, we’re half-French, half-German.
Yes, my husband is the same ancestry. His family name, Hugg, is from Alsace.
Oh, yeah! My mother is French and my dad is German. My mother has a highly evolved French aesthetic. She loves French food, French art. It’s part of our lives and part of our loves. And I love putting in art and French stuff [into the novels].
Gardening During a Pandemic
I’ve been working on a book about plants and mental health. I know from Twitter that you’ve recently gotten into gardening so I wanted to ask, what does gardening do for you in terms of mental health?
Oh, interesting. Yeah, a few years ago, I wrote this little book called Happier Every Day and one of the things to do is grow a garden! Plant a garden because all these studies show that people who garden suffer less depression, are more physically active, and all those things. There’s something about playing in the dirt. It’s like when you’re a kid. It’s fun! You forget! I mean for me gardening is just me being three years old and playing in the dirt. That’s basically what it is with fancier tools. But that’s the appeal of it. I think that’s why more people have taken it up during this pandemic.
I’ve always been a gardener but I grew flowers and shrubs and I didn’t grow vegetables or fruit to eat. So, during this pandemic, like a year ago, I said to my husband, “What if there’s no food?” because we were already having shortages here. I said, “I think we better build” — we have 19 acres here and most of it’s woods — but I said, “You know I think it’s time we put in a potager garden. We’re going to have to have it just in case. We better grow some vegetables.” So he built me this spectacular big, rectangular garden with raised beds and arbors at each end and … just beautiful and I thought, “Oh no, now I have to plant something in there!” [laughs] And I wasn’t convinced I could do it.
But we got some good soil from the guy down the road, amended soil, and my neighbor said, “Oh, the soil’s so good here everything will grow,” and everything grew! I ordered a package of vegetable seeds, some of them I didn’t know what they were, some were vegetables I’d never heard of, but they came from this artisanal seed company in Vermont. It was 50 bucks worth of seeds and we had radishes and okra and tomatoes and chard and lettuce and beans and peas and squash. I mean this goes on and on. It was insane. And we got Blondie not long after we built that, and I would just spend the summer out there, in the garden with the puppy.
It’s like a form of meditation really. I do a lot of yoga and meditation and it’s a form of meditation to be out there in the dirt, digging away in nature, in the sun. I think that’s what a lot of people are missing. We were lucky because you know, we couldn’t travel, we couldn’t go to the movies, couldn’t go to dinner, couldn’t do any of those things, but I could go out in the garden and dig for a while. And that’s what really saved me.
And all we did was cook because we live, as my son says, in “Nowhere, New Hampshire,” so having the garden and all these new vegetables and new recipes, it even made cooking more fun. I would encourage everyone to grow something.
I have watched every episode of the show Parks and Recreation, many of them twice. And yet I never remembered Leslie Knope talking about Galentine’s Day. What is Galentine’s Day? Well, as Leslie says, it’s ladies celebrating ladies. A day, right before Valentine’s Day, when you recognize those special female friends, or “gals,” in your life. The friends who have supported you through thick and thin.
Coincidentally, I’m seeing a friend tonight. A friend I admire and a friend who is dear. A friend who has helped me along my writer’s journey and even helped me venture out into related ventures. We’re meeting up for drinks before attending a celebration of a local Seattle writer who, sadly, passed away this last December.
Seattle Author and Teacher Waverly Fitzgerald
Waverly Fitzgerald wrote historical fiction, mysteries, nonfiction, and more. She was a pillar in the Seattle literary community, having taught at Hugo House, the Hedgebrook retreat, and various conferences. Though I didn’t know her, I’d attended Sisters in Crime meetings, a writer’s organization she volunteered for. I always admired that she wrote about nature and was an advocate for the environment. Especially urban ones. But in December, she unfortunately died at the too-early age of 68 from illness. A huge loss to the Seattle writing community.
So when my friend asked if I wanted to meet up before attending a celebration of her life, I eagerly said yes. That the date coincides with Galentine’s Day makes it even better. Though the giving spirit of Waverly Fitzgerald is gone, I think she’d approve of two friends celebrating Galentine’s Day by attending a book reading in her honor.
Death in Avignon is another delightful mystery from British author Serena Kent (a.k.a. Deborah Lawrenson and husband Robert Rees). It’s an even tighter follow up to the fun Death in Provence. This time the murder takes place in the larger city of Avignon rather than Penny’s small village of St. Merlot, making for a rich puzzle of clues and evidence against the backdrop of the art world.
British divorcée Penelope Kite has been renovating her house and brushing up on her cello playing. When the handsome mayor, Laurent Millais, invites her to the opening of an exhibition by four famed Provençal artists, she happily accepts. Romantic tension between the two builds while Penny tries to tease out whether the mayor’s intentions are romantic. But that matters little when suddenly the most outlandish artist at the opening collapses. It looks like poisoning, maybe a heart attack, maybe an allergic reaction, and of course, Penelope slips into finding more out about the case.
Affairs and Liaisons
Without giving too much away, I’ll simply say Penelope starts to visit with those who knew the artist and uncovers clues as to what happened. The plot is believable and draws you in, making you suspect almost everyone and wonder at each little encounter and event. The story ambles along in a rapid but comfortable rhythm, the characters are crisply drawn and interesting. We see the return of her extroverted friend Frankie as well as the new mysterious character Gilles de Bourdan. But in addition to the beautiful sun, lavender fields, ancient villages, and French people, the true star of the show here is Kent’s wit.
It manifests again and again in Penny’s thoughts and conversational asides. So believably human, she’s a middle-aged woman struggling to look as chic and slim as the French women around her. She’s a mom whose adult step-kids can sometimes be annoying and a talented musician who knows her limits when it comes to practicing and performing. Penny moves through the world with sharp, self-deprecating prose. We get her observations about the absurd, about how envious she can be, how awkward she can be, all while we readers learn how elegant and relaxed and forgiving she truly is.
If you’re looking for a light fun mystery to read this summer, check out Death in Avignon. There’s nothing too disturbing, too upsetting, or too intense. But that’s the beauty of it. It’s an intriguing yet breezy novel that will put a smile on your face before you fall asleep at night.
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