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Holly Blues (China Bayles Mystery) by Susan Wittig Albert
Cover Artist: Joe Burleson
Review by Gayle Surrette
Berkley Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780425232606
Date: 06 April 2010 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

China Bayles is looking forward to having a great Christmas this year. Money is tight, but this is the first Christmas since receiving guardianship of Caitlin, the daughter of China's half-brother. China and Mike are also having a big party for all their neighbors and friends. At least that was the plan until Mike got offered a job to take a deposition and, while he was out of state, his ex-wife showed up at China's shop claiming to be broke and without a car or place to live. We just know this can't be good.

More Susan Wittig Albert:
China Bayles:
* Spanish Dagger
* Nightshade
* Wormwood
* Holly Blues
* China Bayles' Book of Days

Beatrix Potter:
* The Tale of Hill Top Farm
* The Tale of Cuckoo Brow Wood
* The Tale of Holly How
* The Tale of Hawthorn House
* The Tale of Applebeck Orchard

China Bayles and her husband, Mike McQuaid, are trying to maintain themselves through the current rocky economic times. China, Ruby Wilcox, and Cass Wilde have done all they can to reduce cost, maintain quality, and keep their business running. Mike is teaching and running his detective agency on the side. Everyone is having problems staying afloat.

Adding a bit to the tension is that China and Mike have recently been given guardianship of China's half-brother's daughter, Caitlin who is eleven. Mike's son Brian and Caitlin get along in spite of the age difference. Caitlin recently lost her father, who was murdered, and then months later, her guardian who died of cancer. She's been through a lot and China and Mike want to give her stability and a place in their family.

So, when Mike gets a chance to take on a short-term good paying job taking a statement from a witness in another state, he accepts the job. Almost immediately after he leaves, his ex-wife, Sally, shows up in China's shop saying she has no car, no money and no home. This hits all China's help-buttons and she asks Sally to stay with them through the holidays.

Sally has always been a problem for China and Mike. She makes promises to Brian and never keeps them. And she's been in trouble with the law -- even serving time. You need to be on your toes when she's around and naturally this time isn't going to be any different. When China gets a call from a creepy sounding man, Sally admits that she's hiding out from a stalker. Again China tries to help. But something is off and whether it's with Sally's story, the stalker, or something else entirely, things begin to happen. People are dying and Sally disappears.

Of course, even though China knows to leave it to the experts, she finds herself and Ruby in the middle of an investigation because she wants that Christmas that she had planned -- the one with the family, the tree, the smiles, the neighbors visiting, and the warmth of a holiday. If she has to find a killer in order to have the dream holiday she planned, she will.

I'm always a bit put out by Christmas stories that come out after Christmas. However, after thinking about it for a while, I realized that I enjoy these books more when I'm not reading them with the stress of holiday expectations hanging over my own head. Not to mention that during the days I was reading this book the temps were in the 90's and reading about other people in chilly weather when your sweltering just seems to add to the joy of a story well told.

If you're a fan of the China Bayles books, then you know that this story will be like visiting old friends and observing them trying to make sense out of chaos. The author plays fair with the clues and there is always some interesting herb trivia that fits with the book's main theme. Of course there's also recipes included that are for items that were discussed in the narrative.

If you haven't read any of the previous books, the author usually gives enough back-fill to bring you up to speed quickly so your can just dive in with this title. But, be warned, you'll want to go back to the beginning of the series and enjoy them all -- in order.

The book also contains recipes/directions for: Cass Wilde's Holiday Peppermint Cupcakes; China's Easy Slow-Cook Sausage-Corn Chowder; Garden Quiche with Tomato, Basil, and Garlic; China's Hot Spiced Holiday Tea; Leslie Strahorn's Gingerbread Cookies; Rosemary-Mint Soap for Holiday Gifts; Thyme & Seasons Christmas Simmer Gift Potpourri; and Two Pomanders for Holiday Gifting.

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