by Sandra Murphy
This week we have a review of Bittersweet by Susan Wittig Albert, which was a perfect fit for our Earth Day issue. We also have a fun interview with Susan. Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of Bittersweet, and a link to purchase it.
Bittersweet By Susan Wittig Albert
Review by Sandra Murphy
It’s Thanksgiving in Pecan Springs, Texas where China Bayles runs the local herb shop. It’s full of all the fresh plants, wreaths, soaps, lotions and books you could imagine. Her business partner, Ruby, will mind the shop as well as her own (New Age) while China visits her mom, Leatha, and stepdad Sam. Stepdaughter Caitie is riding with China, hubby McQuaid is bringing stepson Brian. It sounds like a blended family but with them, it’s seamless.
China gets bad news though when she finds out Sam’s had a heart attack. He’ll be in the hospital, but the dinner must go on. He insists.
Leatha has always been one for denial. If she doesn’t think about it, it isn’t happening. She’s sure Sam will be fine. Their new business, a bird watchers retreat, will be fine. She’ll be fine. China’s not so sure. Even with the help of Sue Ellen, a neighbor who’s just left her husband, it will be time-consuming hard work. Who knows how long Sue Ellen will be willing or able to stay? Her husband seems to be the kind who’d make you want to go into hiding.
Still, China will be able to see things for herself as well as reconnect with game warden Mackenzie Chambers. Mack’s got her hands full since she’s almost always on call. Sometimes violators make it easy, like the guy who poached a deer out of season and then bragged about it, complete with photos, on his Facebook page. True hunters don’t like that and are willing to rat out poachers.
Sue Ellen hints at possible legal problems. China is still up on her bar association fees but doesn’t practice law so she sets Sue Ellen up with an old law school classmate, nicknamed The Wiz. Before Sue Ellen can tell all, she goes missing. Her car and body are found at the bottom of a steep cliff. It’s not the route she usually took since she was afraid of that road so it’s no surprise to discover it wasn’t an accident.
Ruby’s daughter Amy is in the area. Ruby thinks she might be up to no good. After all, why spend the holiday without her partner?
When a second murder takes place, both Mack and China are sure it’s related to smuggling. Although smuggling brings to mind pirates and ships, these smugglers import deer from Oklahoma and other states. Texas deer are smaller and can’t hold a huge rack of antlers. The mutant deer are much larger. Of course, they also eat more which further depletes the natural habitat for native species. Some ranches have legal breeding for deer, others operate outside the law. It’s hard to enforce since deer do roam.
The deer are bred for one thing–to be killed on what’s commonly known as canned hunts. The deer are hand fed when young and then have feeding spots where they expect to find meals so they’re used to humans being around. The feeding spots are located near cushy hunting blinds for hunters who pay high dollar for a guaranteed deer, not for the meat, but for the antlers. Of course, greed doesn’t stop there. Exotic animals are also imported. At one point, China sees a zebra. There are also big cats and animals. (There are no gruesome scenes to read.)
Before China leaves for the ranch, she and Ruby have a discussion about invasive species. China’s talking about bittersweet. A vendor has shipped beautiful wreaths made with an aggressive form of the plant. If any of the colorful seeds fall off the wreath, are stolen and dropped by a bird or the wreath is ever discarded, the seeds will grow and it will destroy native plants. When she sees the deer and learns about them from Mack, she realizes invasive species are not limited to plants but include animals and humans as well.
I missed Ruby in this book. She stayed behind in Pecan Springs so China could visit family. McQuaid, Brian and Caitie are only around for a day or so too (and Caitie’s cat). Sam was in the hospital. Still, it was nice to get better acquainted with Leatha and Mack.
As always, China tells the story and readers feel like they’re talking to a friend. There are a lot of aspects to the tale, and before you know it, they all come together in a perfect blend.
Sad to say, the part about the huge, mutant deer and the canned hunts is not fiction. There are no gory scenes, no kills witnessed and discussed on the page, but the sadness is there because you know it’s really happening.
This is the perfect book to read for Earth Day as it will inspire you to protest the canned hunts and invasive species of both plants and animals. As water-restricted Californians are learning, native plants are suited to the climate. Imports use excess resources. Susan says if you want to follow the news about the Texas trophy farms, search Texas canned hunts, genetically modified deer and deer breeding.
There are twenty-five books in this series. Also enjoy eight Beatrice Potter mysteries, five Darling Dahlias and, writing as Robin Paige (with her husband Bill Albert), twelve Death At…books. There are an additionally three non-fiction books. To sign up for Susan’s newsletter, All About Thyme, go to tinyurl.com/pvgbps6.
Since it’s China, there are recipes: venison chili, cabbage and sausage soup, lemon-rosemary sticky rolls, orange ginger carrots, slaw with pickled beets and apples, rosemary stuffing, peach pie (rosemary in this too!), herb quiche and chai tea cookies.
Susan Wittig Albert Interview
KRL: How long have you been writing?
Susan: I began writing for publication when I was 18, short fiction and nonfiction for YA magazines (a substantial market, back then). After I finished grad school and became a university professor, I did the requisite scholarly work (books and articles). At mid-life, I left the university and began writing YA novels fulltime. That morphed into nonfiction and mysteries in my 50s, and from there, into more nonfiction and biographical fiction.
KRL: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series? Please tell us a little about the setting and main character for your most recent book.
Susan: The China Bayles/Pecan Springs mysteries are a long-running series (currently, 23 books). The protagonist owns an herb shop in a small Texas town, halfway between Austin and San Antonio, at the eastern edge of the Hill Country. Every three or four books, China goes elsewhere: in the latest book, Bittersweet, she goes to visit her mother’s ranch in Uvalde County, in deep South Texas. There, she reconnects with a friend, Mack, who is a Parks and Wildlife game warden (a challenging job for a woman anywhere, but especially in macho Texas). One of Mack’s duties is to supervise the deer farms in her area: high-fenced ranches where captive deer with genetics for massive antlers are raised specifically for hunting. Deer farms sell “canned hunts”: hunts where deer are lured with food to places where a paying hunter can easily shoot them. A multi-point buck (some with hugely grotesque racks of antlers) can go for $15,000 or more. It is illegal to import deer into Texas, primarily because of Chronic Wasting Disease. In Bittersweet, Mack uncovers a deer-smuggling scheme that leads to murder.
KRL: How prevalent are the canned hunts and game farms?
Susan: Deer breeding and hunting and exotic game farming/hunting are big business in Texas and getting bigger. In 2012, animal farming/hunting was a $2.8-billion industry, the largest in the nation. Across the country, deer breeding is reportedly the fastest-growing rural business. Canned hunts are permitted in 30 states, banned or restricted in 20 states.
KRL: Is anyone protesting exotic animal hunts?
Susan: There’s a great deal of protest, although not so much in Texas. Both the Humane Society and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals are outspoken critics of canned hunting and deer farming. Some hunting groups, especially those that foster “fair chase” (the practice of hunting animals that have a fair chance of eluding the hunter), also object, on the grounds that canned hunts present target animals that are psychologically conditioned not to elude hunters. In March, 2014, CACH (Campaign against Canned Hunting) organized protests in 62 cities across the planet.
Hunting groups such as the Pope and Young Club and the Boone and Crockett Club do not accept animals killed in canned hunts for inclusion in their record books.
KRL: Will greed win out?
Susan: Probably. It’s a sad fact that money usually talks louder than principle and here in Texas, money talks very loudly. In some rural counties, deer farming/canned hunting is the only thriving business.
KRL: We felt your books are a great fit for Earth Day. What brought you to choose these types of topics?
Susan: The protagonist, China Bayles, is an herbalist and committed to a green life, and most of her books have to do with some aspect of gardening, farming and the natural world. China’s interests reflect my own. My husband Bill and I live on a 31-acre homestead in the Texas Hill Country, where we live as lightly as we can. Over the nearly three decades that we’ve lived here, we’ve grown as much of our own food as we can and raised different kinds of livestock. Bittersweet began when Bill spotted an Axis deer in our pasture, escaped from a nearby exotic animal farm. Axis deer are larger than our native whitetails and compete for scarce foliage, so they can be a serious threat to the native population.
Basically, I write about things I want to learn about, and I want to learn about what’s going on in the natural world around me. But do remember that China Bayles is just one of my mystery series and mysteries aren’t the only kind of books I write!
KRL: What kind of research do you have to do?
Susan: It depends on the project. Some books take a long time and lots of research. I recently published A Wilder Rose, about Rose Wilder Lane and her role in the writing of the iconic Little House books. I began thinking about that project in the 1970s, started serious research in the 1980s, and wrote the book in 2011-12. I don’t like to repeat work (always a challenge when you’re writing a series), so I try to do something different with every book, and I prefer projects that take me deep into a new subject. The Internet is a godsend for writers like me.
KRL: What do you read?
Susan: I read books, articles, posts, and research documents related to what I’m currently writing about or might possibly write about in the future (which covers a HUGE amount of territory, by a surprising number of writers). I usually have 3-4 books going at once, in e-book format, print, and audio. I prefer print if I’m going to use the book for research. Sometimes I buy a book in two or even three formats. I don’t read for entertainment much these days, although I find that everything I read “entertains” me at some level. When my writing students ask me for my advice about writing, I have just one word: READ. If you don’t read, you can’t write. It’s as simple as that.
KRL: China seems to be in a good place now. She’s got a number of spin off businesses and she loves having Caitie there. Have you figured out how Leatha and Sam’s situation will impact China’s life? No spoilers, but will that be in the next book?
Susan: It will, but only tangentially in the next two books. The 2016 book is already written and focuses on the hospice industry (although there’s an update on Sam and Leatha). I’d like to use Mack again as she’s a strong female character in an interesting profession (game warden) and place (South Texas). I want to do another book featuring Ruby, and Sheila’s life (as a small town female police chief) always holds plot possibilities. So there’s plenty to choose from and not much possibility that I’ll repeat myself.
KRL: Will the usual cast of characters be back together in the next book? I missed McQuaid and Ruby. China needs another dog.
Susan: The 2016 book is set in Pecan Springs, so there are more of China’s family and friends, including Ruby and some worries about McQuaid, whose business as a private investigator also holds plenty of plot possibilities. And yes, China and McQuaid have adopted another Basset: Winchester. He’ll never quite replace Howard Cosell, but he has his own personality.
KRL: I know you and China have been together for a long time now. Are the Darling Dahlia books a nice change of pace? Is it hard to go back and forth in time?
Susan: I started the Dahlias series because I wanted to learn more about the Depression, and wanted to write more historical fiction, after finishing the Beatrix Potter Cottage Tales and (with Bill) the Robin Paige Victorian/Edwardian mysteries. I’ve done six in the Dahlias series and haven’t decided how many more there will be.
I don’t find it difficult to work in different eras. I’m pretty compartmentalized: that is, while I may be reading for future books, I work on only one book at a time. And as a series writer, I’m able to take advantage of the research for previous books. But once I’m away from a period (for instance, the last Robin Paige book was published in 2006), it becomes very hard to go back. I’m often asked if I’ll return to Beatrix Potter, and I regretfully say “no.” It would be too hard to get back into that research, reassume her voice and relearn the details of her life well enough to create more fiction about her.
KRL: Future writing goals?
Susan: I’d like to do more biographical fiction, and have a couple of books up my sleeve: one nearly finished and with an editor; another in the planning and pre-writing stage; another in the “I’m-thinking-about-it” stage. I’m working on a memoir with my brother about our life in small-town Illinois in the 1950s, and have another memoir in the thinking stage. So there’s plenty of writing ahead, I hope, and some different kinds of publishing.
I’ve been traditionally published through most of my writing career, but I very much enjoyed self-publishing A Wilder Rose (it has since been picked up and re-released by Lake Union Publishing). I’d like to do more self-published fiction and nonfiction.
KRL: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Susan: How about this? I’m the founder (1997) of the Story Circle Network (www.StoryCircle.org), an international nonprofit membership organization that works with women life writers. We sponsor conferences, workshops, online classes, and the largest women’s book review site on the Internet – www.StoryCircleBookReviews.org (I’m the site editor) – and the Sarton Women’s Literary Awards for memoir and historical and contemporary fiction. I believe that every woman has a story to tell and that every woman’s story is important (whether she thinks it is or not), and I’m passionate about finding ways to support women’s writing. Check us out: www.StoryCircle.org.
To enter to win a copy of Bittersweet simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “Bittersweet,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen April 25, 2015. U.S. residents only. If entering via email please include your mailing address, and if via comment please include your email address.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section. You can also find many more Earth Day related articles & reviews in this issue.
Use this link to purchase a copy of the book: