by Sandra Murphy
& Susan Wittig Albert
This week we have a review of the latest China Bales mystery by Susan Wittig Albert, along with a fun guest post by Susan. Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of Queen Anne’s Lace, and a link to purchase it from Amazon, and an indie bookstore where a portion of the sale goes to help support KRL.
Queen Anne’s Lace: China Bayles Series By Susan Wittig Albert
Review by Sandra Murphy
China Bayles sells herbs fresh in pots, dried in jars, molded into soaps, poured into lotions, and woven into wreaths. Next door, her best friend Ruby has her own shop where she deals in the more mystical side of the universe. In back is their tea room that also caters. Upstairs, a weaver rents space for classes. Out back are the gardens, each a different design.
During the slow times, put-off chores get done, like cleaning the attic. Among the why-did-we-save-this stuff, there’s always a treasure or two to find. For some time now, China’s noticed things out of place in the shop, nothing big or worrisome, but noticeable. When that pattern becomes linked to finds in the attic, she wonders if, like Ruby believes, ghosts could be real after all.
China was a lawyer in her former career, so she’s not prone to flights of fancy. It’s always been Ruby who was the believer, who was sure there’s more to the world than what we can see and touch. To save her own sanity, China researches the history of her shop which started out as someone’s home. And therein, lies the mystery.
At home, Sheila, the police chief, is pregnant, and it’s not going as smoothly as she’d planned. Her husband, Blackie, has to hand over a job to McQuaid, China’s husband, to be with Sheila. That leaves China with Winchester, the Basset, Mr. P, the cat, and Caitie, China’s niece turned adopted daughter—and her chickens who require a bath before being shown at the fair.
Solve a long-dead mystery, meet a ghost, keep up with the shop and its subsidiaries, watch out for Sheila and keep a couple of chickens clean and groomed for showing—what could be easier?
This is book twenty-six of the well-loved series. While some of the books have focused on other characters, this is mostly about China and her relationship to Caitie, a constant surprise to China. It will be interesting to see how the practical Sheila reacts to motherhood as well. The mystery is a good one as readers are pulled into the history of Pecan Springs and the family who built the house.
Queen Anne’s Lace is part of the carrot family so recipes include Cass’ Couscous Carrot Salad, One-Dish Moroccan Chicken and Carrots, China’s Peach and Carrot Cobbler, Queen Anne’s Lace Jelly, Pesto Chicken and Carrot Wraps, Tomato Basil Soup, Healthy Carrot-Maple Muffins, Spinach and Carrot Quiche, and Cosmetic Carrot-Infused Oil.
Albert also writes The Cottage Tales of Beatrice Potter books (8) and The Darling Dahlias mysteries (7). Writing as Robin Paige with her husband, there are twelve books in the The Victorian Mystery/Kathryn Ardleigh Death At series as well as half a dozen other books.
Braiding Two Narratives with Queen Anne’s Lace
By Susan Wittig Albert
Queen Anne’s Lace, China Bayles’ twenty-sixth mystery, will likely be one of my favorites in this long-running series. For one thing, it’s a composite narrative—two stories braided into one. I enjoy writing braided stories because they present so many challenges. Keeping the stories moving. Keeping the reader (and me!) interested in both stories. Keeping the stories balanced. Bringing them both to a satisfying conclusion, at the same time (more or less) with a similar intensity. This is hard. This is very hard. That’s why it’s fun.
As you may know from other series I’ve written (The Darling Dahlias, the Beatrix Potter Cottage Tales, the Robin Paige Victorian/Edwardian mysteries), I love to go digging around in history. That’s another reason I enjoyed writing Queen Anne’s Lace. One of the book’s braided narratives is set in the usual time and place: Pecan Springs, Texas, today—in China’s herb shop, Thyme & Seasons. The other narrative is set in Pecan Springs, in the late 1880s, in the house that later became Thyme & Seasons. The bridge between the two stories is a ghost with a story to tell and a mystery to solve. I loved reading about the 1880s in Austin, Texas, in archived copies of the Austin thanks Weekly Statesman, histories of lacemaking in Europe and America, and histories of women’s use of herbal contraceptives, all of which are important elements in the book.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written a braided narrative. The Last Chance Olive Ranch is braided, with China and her friend/partner Ruby as main characters in one story, and McQuaid (China’s husband) and his PI partner Blackie in the other. The two stories (one a mystery, the other a thriller) take place in the same time frame (a weekend), but in different settings (rural West Texas and urban Pecan Springs/Austin/San Antonio). And for a braided-narrative historical, consider Widow’s Tears: the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 is the main character in one of the stories, while Ruby and China are the main characters in the contemporary mystery. The house—a replica of one destroyed in the hurricane—is the bridge. Oh, and yes, there’s a ghost. Naturally.
Queen Anne’s Lace was also fun to write because of the light, humorous subplot involving Caitie and her chickens, Dixie Chick and Extra Crispy, as well as a mysterious all-black rooster with a price on his head. This little story (almost like a sidebar in a magazine piece) ends with a shoot-’em-up and the discovery of a couple of acres of… But that would be a spoiler.
And there is one more important reason for my affection for this novel. For many years, I’ve wanted to include herbal contraceptives and abortifacients in one of China’s mysteries. There are fifteen or so plants that have been used across time and cultures: rue, thyme, parsley, pennyroyal, juniper, tansy, golden groundsel, artemisia, blue cohosh, acacia, asafetida, Queen Anne’s lace, slippery elm, calamus (sweet flag), and cotton root. In a tea or tincture, these powerful plants can cause moderate to strong uterine contractions—good to know if your period was late. The story I tell about Delia in Queen Anne’s Lace is fictional—but it could be true. Nobody knows how many women across the eons have died attempting to end a pregnancy. If you’re interested in this subject, check out the books I mention in the author’s note at the end of the novel. (And look back at the list and consider the double entendre in this old Scottish saying: Rue in time is a maiden’s posy.)
As a reader, I’m always looking for authors who show me new ways to see and understand our familiar world. That’s what keeps me going as a writer, too. China’s twenty-seventh adventure is called A Plain Vanilla Murder. I hope you’ll join me for a new look into the old mysteries of vanilla.
To enter to win a copy of Queen Anne’s Lace, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “lace,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen May 26, 2018. U.S. residents only. If entering via email please include your mailing address, and if via comment please include your email address.
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