Book review: Clever plot, characters drive the suspense in ‘These Toxic Things’ – South Florida Sun Sentinel – South Florida Sun Sentinel

‘These Toxic Things’ by Rachel Howzell Hall. Thomas & Mercer, 448 pages, $24.95
Pouring over the family scrapbook brings back fond memories for most of us, and the scrapbooking hobby continues to be popular. In the clever “These Toxic Things,” Rachel Howzell Hall explores how future generations may prefer their memories to be preserved digitally.
Expertly plotted with intriguing characters, “These Toxic Things” taps into how items can bring back memories, allow us to return— at least for a few minutes — to another time, a relationship, an event. Depending on our capacity for sentimentality, the souvenirs of our lives can possess so much meaning.
Nadia Denham is the elderly owner of Beautiful Things, an odd shop with “mostly things that used to be,” located in a run-down shopping center in a predominantly Black area of Santa Barbara, Calif. Nadia knows she’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and wants to preserve her memories now, preparing for the day when she can’t remember.
She hires a digital archaeologist, Michaela “Mickie” Lambert, with the company Memory Bank. Nadia buys the Mega-Memory Package, a holographic “next-generation digital scrapbook that will recall those special places she’s visited as well as souvenirs, pictures, and objets d’art that she’s acquired.”
Before Mickie can get started on the project, Nadia allegedly commits suicide. But since the company already has cashed Nadia’s $5,000 check, Mickie decides to finish the project for the woman’s family, especially since Nadia already had assembled items and written descriptions for the scrapbook.
Those 12 items are eclectic — a hairclip, a pen, a keychain — all related to women she had helped rescue. It’s explained that Nadia made it her mission to help women “in distress,” since she had escaped an abusive marriage.
Adding to the tension, Mickie believes she is being stalked by a serial killer in the area. Meanwhile, determined developers have targeted the shopping plaza for redevelopment, trying to drive out each business.
Howzell Hall skillfully delivers an original plot with numerous surprising twists and realistic characters. Mickie’s close relationship with her loving parents contrasts with Nadia’s complicated life. She persuasively weaves in issues such as development, family dynamics and how culture is shaped by people and things, and how we become attached to objects, all while keeping the suspense churning.
“These Toxic Things” clicks all the boxes for a terrific story.
Oline H. Cogdill can be reached at [email protected].
Rachel Howzell Hall discusses “These Toxic Things” and Alison Gaylin discusses her novel “The Collective” as part of the Sun Sentinel PRIME Expo, a free virtual event geared for adults ages 55 and over Nov. 5 through Nov. 20. To register or for more information, visit for free registration or more information.