Holly Blues
by Susan Wittig Albert

Berkley Prime Crime, 2010. ISBN 978-0-425-23260-6.
Reviewed by Susan Ideus
Posted on 04/08/2010

Fiction: Mystery

"...let's take time out for introductions. Some of you already know me and have visited my shop a dozen times or more. Others—well, maybe this is your first visit, and you haven't a clue to who we are or what we're talking about. So, my name is China Bayles."

One of the best parts of Holly Blues, or any of the China Bayles series, is the warm welcome. The reader is immediately drawn into the world of Pecan Springs, China, McQuaid, Ruby, and all of the other folks in this small Texas Hill Country town. Since there is inevitably a time span between releases, this serves to refresh the memory of the regular China Bayles reader; and, if this is the first of the series the reader has picked up—heaven forbid!—there is enough background given that this could be read as a stand-alone book. A very nice touch!

As one might suspect from the title, this story finds China and companions ready to celebrate Christmas. Times are hard in Pecan Springs, as elsewhere in the country, and China is working extra at her herbal shop to bring in much needed revenue. Hubby McQuaid, a private investigator, is off to Omaha despite the calendar, also trying to make the most of every money-making opportunity. At this busiest of times, who should show up but the troublesome Sally, McQuaid's ex-wife and definitely not one of China's favorite people. Still, it is the holiday season and China does her best to make Sally feel welcome.

As usual, Sally brings mayhem in her wake, adding murder, threatening phone calls, and tragedy to her list of companions this time. Once again, China, McQuaid, and Ruby have to pool their myriad and varied skills to solve old and new mysteries. The holidays may pass them by if these mysteries and murders aren't solved quicker than they can say "Grinch". It's tough work, but this team is up to the challenge, using McQuaid's connections, Ruby's sometimes far-out ideas, and China's lawyerly and problem-solving skills.

With this book came for me the realization that China has grown in depth of character since the beginning of the series. She has always been a strong and competent woman, a good friend, wife, and business woman. Here, there is softening and mellowing. From a woman who was not sure how to even relate to Brian, her stepson, China has opened her arms and her heart to her orphaned niece, Caitie, reveling in her hugs and cuddles, thankful that they can provide a loving and stable home for her. China seems more rounded and multi-faceted now and the change is pleasant to see.

Just as China and McQuaid have to tough out the hard economic times, they have to learn to cope with a changing landscape. Showing that she is environmentally aware far beyond Pecan Springs and her own gardens, China laments the urban sprawl taking over her part of Texas describing it as "...an ugly octopus of supersized, overpriced McMansions." As always, Albert's keen descriptions of place are detailed and right on, be it familiar Pecan Springs, or snowy Omaha. Her research comes shining through, and is another reason her books are so enjoyable to read.

Instead of letting an established series turn stale, Albert has used her considerable skills and imagination to give the reader yet another thriller, with fresh ideas, up-to-date methodology, current social commentary and new depth to her characters and story line. I'll be waiting anxiously for the next installment!

Susan Wittig Albert has been a professor and a college administrator, earning her Ph.D. in English from the University of California at Berkeley. Deciding that the academic life was not for her, she quit to become a writer. Early in her career, she wrote Young Adult and Teen books, including Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. She is well-known for her Cottage Tales series featuring Beatrix Potter and her long-running China Bayles series. Together, Alone is her 2009 memoir about her writing life in the Texas Hill Country, and her marriage to Bill Albert. She also co-wrote Victorian mysteries with husband Bill, under the pen name Robin Paige. In 2010, she will introduce her Darling Dahlias series. Albert also founded Story Circle Network, a non-profit organization that encourages women to write about their lives. For more information, visit her blog, Lifescapes.

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