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The Qwillery

A blog about books and other things speculative

Review: Bittersweet by Susan Wittig Albert

Author:  Susan Wittig Albert
Series:  China Bayles 23
Publisher:  Berkley (Prime Crime), April 7, 2015
Format:  Hardcover and eBook, 304 pages
List Price:  $25.95 (print)
ISBN:  9780425255629 (print)
Review Copy:  Provided by the Publisher

Review: Bittersweet by Susan Wittig Albert
New from the author of Death Come Quickly and Widow’s Tears

This Thanksgiving, be grateful for China Bayles—who teams up with an old friend to solve a complex case of theft and murder in a South Texas ranching community…

It’s Thanksgiving in Pecan Springs, and China is planning to visit her mother, Leatha, and her mother’s husband, Sam, who are enthusiastically embarking on a new enterprise—turning their former game ranch into a vacation retreat for birders. She’s also looking forward to catching up with her friend, game warden Mackenzie “Mack” Chambers, who was recently transferred to the area. But Leatha calls with bad news: Sam has had a heart attack.

How will Leatha manage if Sam can’t carry his share? She does have a helper, Sue Ellen Krause. But China discovers that Sue Ellen, who is in the process of leaving her marriage to the assistant foreman at a large trophy game ranch, is in some serious trouble. Before Sue Ellen can tell China the full story, her car veers off a deserted road and she is killed.

Meanwhile, when a local veterinarian is shot in what appears to be a burglary at his clinic, Mack Chambers believes his murder could be related to fawns stolen from a nearby ranch. As Mack follows the trail, China begins to wonder if Sue Ellen’s death may not have been an accident, and if there’s a connection to the stolen animals. But their search for the truth may put their own lives in danger…

Jennifer's Review

The 23rd installment of Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles Mystery Series is entitled Bittersweet. This time around, China is spending time with her mother, Leatha, as they get ready for Thanksgiving, the eminent opening of Leatha and her husband Sam’s bird sanctuary, and deal with the aftermath of Sam’s recent heart attack. We also meet Mackenzie “Mack” Chambers, a female game warden who recently moved to the area near Leatha’s home, the town called Utopia. While Utopia may seem idyllic on the surface, a series of events unfolds that lead to three untimely deaths. China and Mack team up to catch a killer and find the connection between the murders and the theft of valuable fawns from an area game ranch.

The story is told through the eyes of both China and Mack, in alternating chapters. This is a style that Wittig Albert has chosen a few times before in the series that works very well by giving the reader two distinct but complementary voices and viewpoints. China is a well established character who can still surprise. She is beginning to worry about her mother in ways she never has before, and discovers a deep seated guilt about her relationship with Leatha that she hasn’t really explored in the past. Leatha has been a present but distant part of China’s life for the duration of the series, but shows vulnerability that makes her all the more endearing in this story. The complex relationship between mother and daughter is expertly executed within the mystery.

Although Mack is a new character, her back-story shows that she lived in Pecan Springs, the town where China lives and works, prior to her recent divorce. Mack is struggling to make her place in a male dominated profession, as she also tries to heal from the betrayal that lead to her divorce. There are two men that enter the picture that are romantic prospects for Mack, city transplant Derek, who is handsome and polished, and sheriff deputy, Ethan, who is hunky and earthy. Other key characters are Sue Ellen, whom Leatha has just hired to help her with the work of opening the inn and nature preserve, and Doc Masters, the crusty but good-hearted local veterinarian. We also see a few familiar faces in Amy, who plays a pivotal role in solving the murders, and is the animal activist daughter of China’s best friend and business partner, Ruby Wilcox, and Caitie, China’s adopted daughter/niece, who is just as precocious and adorable as ever. Ruby does make a brief appearance, as do China’s husband and step-son, but the action of the story takes place away from Pecan Springs, so their involvement is smaller than usual.

Wittig Albert’s writing is always enjoyable and she manages to keep this long running series fresh by interspersing relevant social or political topics into the plot, along with adding new and interesting characters. She has created and enchanting world, that is inhabited by diverse people and complex interpersonal relationships. Her characters are three dimensional and their interactions with one another are authentic and relatable. As is generally the case in a China Bayles Mystery, the murders are not always the main focus of the book, but the mystery is well drawn and plausible, having a satisfying ending after a couple of twists, as in all the books in the series. The real charm, though, lies with the people we get to meet in the course of the mystery. Mack is someone I would love to see more of in China’s world. She has a vibrant personality and the book leaves a few loose ends in her story that just beg to be explored, either in subsequent China Bayles books, or even in her own spinoff series. I would love to learn more about her, the town of Utopia, and its inhabitants.

Review: Murder in the Queen's Garden by Amanda Carmack

Murder in the Queen's Garden
Author:  Amanda Carmack
Series:  An Elizabethan Mystery 3
Publisher:  Signet, February 3, 2014
Format:  Mass Market Paperback and eBook, 304 pages
List Price:  $7.99 (print)
ISBN:  9780451415134 (print)
Review Copy:  Provided by the Publisher

Review: Murder in the Queen's Garden by Amanda Carmack
The author of Murder at Westminster Abbey and Murder at Hatfield House is back with an absorbing and surprising new Elizabethan Mystery…

1559. Elizabeth has been on the throne for six months, and life in England seems newly golden. But for the Royal Court, murder and betrayal are foretold in the stars….

Kate Haywood, the young queen’s personal musician, has been keeping busy playing for a merry round of summer parties where famed astrologer Dr. John Dee and his fantastic horoscopes are all the rage. However, Elizabeth’s favorite stargazer fails to predict the discovery of a skeleton in the queen’s garden—and that the victim’s identity will call his own innocence into question.

When the doctor’s pupil is the victim of a second murder, the concerned queen enlists her trusted Kate to clear the accused killer of wrongdoing. But will the stars align to light Kate’s path through a tangled thicket of treachery to save Elizabeth’s prized astrologer and protect the queen from those who threaten her reign?

Jennifer's Review

The third installment of Amanda Carmack’s Elizabethan Mystery series is titled Murder in the Queen’s Garden and is set only six months into the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The queen and her court are on a traditional summer progress to escape the heat of London, and are settling into a routine of music and frivolity at her late father’s famed country residence, Nonsuch Palace. Kate Haywood, the queen’s personal musician and sometime spy is also in attendance, and has the misfortune to be among those who find a decayed skeleton, buried long ago and unearthed by heavy rains, on the idyllic palace grounds. Soon another body, this one newly murdered, is found soon after, and causes Kate, who will do anything to keep the queen safe, to race across the countryside trying to find a killer who may have a much higher target in mind.

Kate is ever vigilant in watching over her beloved Queen Elizabeth. She uses her extraordinary powers of observation and keen intellect, along with her innate curiosity to help ensure the queen’s safety. She is becoming a skilled courtier with the help of Lady Anne Godwin and Mistress Violet Roland, two new characters that have joined the queen’s household since the last novel in the series, and have become fast friends with the faithful Kate. Lady Anne is a pleasant but reticent character, which creates an interesting juxtaposition with Violet, who is portrayed as a rather naïve and lighthearted young woman. Kate is pleasantly surprised to find two eligible suitors arrive at Nonsuch. Rob Cartman, who is often likened to a golden god, has arrived to entertain the queen with his troupe of actors. Anthony Elias, aspiring attorney and long time friend of Kate’s has also arrived unexpectedly and causes Kate’s heart to flutter with his classical dark looks and steadfast support. Neither man overtly pursues the lovely Kate, but each harbors deep feelings for her and vow to help her in her quest for justice when a young man, who Kate feels is innocent, is accused of the current murder. We also see a multitude of historical figures supporting the story. The author gives such people as Sir Robert Dudley, William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s Boleyn relatives, and famed court astrologer, Dr. John Dee, life and depth that enhance the plot of the mystery.

Descriptions of the elaborate palace and garden settings, as well as the finer points of court dress and etiquette, are superbly done and are obviously well researched, adding strength to the story. The mystery focuses on crimes committed almost two decades apart, yet the plotline flows nicely and the connections between them are fully explored. By incorporating real historical figures into her novels, Carmack gives the reader tantalizing possible motivations of such well known people. She creates a stunningly complex world of court intrigues interspersed with budding romances and old family ties that are all well drawn and fascinating. I highly recommend this series to any reader who loves lush period detail and intricate mysteries.

Review: Fry Another Day by J. J. Cook

Fry Another Day
Author:  J. J. Cook
Series:  A Biscuit Bowl Food Truck Mystery 2
Publisher:  Berkley, February 3, 2015
Format:  Mass Market Paperback and eBook, 304 pages
List Price:  $7.99 (print)
ISBN:  9780425263464 (print)
Review Copy:  Provided by the Publisher

Review: Fry Another Day by J. J. Cook
From the national bestselling author of the Sweet Pepper Fire Brigade Mysteries comes the second in a new series featuring Zoe Chase, a Southern food truck chef who serves justice on the side.
With a few loyal friends in tow—including her handsome attorney, Miguel, and her cat, Crème Brûlée—Zoe drives the Biscuit Bowl to Charlotte, North Carolina, to enter a nationally televised food truck race. The contest features challenges across the Southeast, and with a fifty-thousand-dollar grand prize, competition isn’t just fierce—it’s killer.

As everyone gears up for the first challenge, another food trucker from Zoe’s hometown is found dead. The race rolls on, but when the body count rises, police begin to suspect Miguel. Now Zoe must race to catch the killer before her attorney needs an attorney.

Jennifer's Review

Fry Another Day is the second installment in the Biscuit Bowl Food Truck Mystery Series, penned by J.J. Cook. The main character of the series is Zoe Chase, an independent southern cook who is trying to make her culinary dreams come true by earning money operating a specialty food truck in her hometown of Mobile, Alabama. Zoe is making a name for herself by serving deep-fried biscuit bowls, which she invented herself and fills with sweet or savory fillings, all of which sound mouthwatering. Luckily the author includes the recipe for this delightful creation, along with some of the fillings described in the book. The story follows Zoe and her rag-tag backup crew as they drive the Biscuit Bowl food truck around the south as contestants in a televised food truck race. Things get off to a rocky start when Zoe discovers the body of a rival food truck owner, the only other participant from her hometown, whose untimely death seems to set into motion a perfect storm of murder and mayhem that follows the race all the way from North Carolina to Alabama.

This cozy mystery isn’t just about murder; there are also a series of events that occur to sabotage not only Zoe and her crew, but all of the contestants of the race, and Zoe finds herself right in the center of the chaos by finding the first body. She becomes involved with the police investigation by being in the right place at the right time to discover other abnormalities and disruptions to the race and the other food truck owners. Zoe’s innate sense of justice and curiosity lead her into becoming more involved with the happenings when her teammate and potential boyfriend, the handsome attorney Miguel, is accused of committing the various crimes. Zoe will stop at nothing to prove Miguel’s innocence, while trying to nurture their budding romance and, at the same time, win the race and the $50,000 prize.

Helping Zoe in all her endeavors are the other members of her food truck crew Ollie, Delia and Uncle Saul. Ollie is a good-hearted homeless man who has been looking out for Zoe ever since she bought the run down diner next door to a local homeless shelter. Delia is model gorgeous but down on her luck and lives with Zoe in a tiny pantry room in the diner. Uncle Saul is the original black sheep of Zoe’s wealthy family, the second one being Zoe herself. All three characters bring comedy and warmth to the storyline. Rounding out the crew is Zoe’s overly large and cantankerous cat, Crème Brulee, who is a reluctant tag-along to the race because no one else but Zoe can handle his quirks. Zoe is strong and passionate about her dreams, she is still uncertain of where those dreams will lead her, but is staunchly committed to seeing things through to the end. She’s had an interest in Miguel since they met in the first novel and he is definitely interested in her, but his tragic past has been holding him back. There are a host of supporting characters surrounding the food truck race, none have much depth, but they don’t need to, many are there strictly to further the storyline in this installment.

The plot line takes a few turns, but overall the mystery was a little predictable. Predictability can be off putting if the story itself is weak, but that is not the case with this novel. The characters, even the supporting ones, are amusing and are often so loveable that you want to get to the end just to see where their personal stories go. I am looking forward to the next installment of this series as it looks like the Biscuit Bowl crew will be heading to Mardi Gras, which leaves all sorts of possibilities for pandemonium and hilarity.
Review: Bittersweet by Susan Wittig AlbertReview: The Readaholics and the Falcon Fiasco by Laura DiSilverioGuest Blog by Susan Wittig Albert, Review and Giveaway of Death Come Quickly - April 10, 2015Review: A Wee Murder in My Shop by Fran StewartReview: Murder in the Queen's Garden by Amanda CarmackReview: Fry Another Day by J. J. CookReview: License to Dill by Mary Ellen HughesReview: At the Drop of a Hat by Jenn McKinlayGuest Blog by Eva Gates: Lighthouses - Review and Giveaway of By Book or By Crook - February 5, 2015Guest Blog by Kate Carlisle: Mystery Author Kate Carlisle Opens an Inn - Review and Giveaway of This Old Homicide - February 3, 2015

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