Bittersweet (China Bayles)
by Susan Wittig Albert
Cover Artist: Joe Burleson
Review by Gayle Surrette
Berkley Mass Market Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780425255315
Date: 05 April 2016 List Price $7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
NOTE: This review previously ran in our April 201r issue and was for the hardcover version of the novel.
Bittersweet is the latest book to allow readers to visit with China Bayles and her family and friends of Pecan Springs, Texas. In each of these books, you can learn more about herbs, since China runs an herb shop and there's a very short essay regarding herbs at the start of each chapter -- usually these articles are related to the herb in the title of the book. You'll also learn more about Texas and its society and politics. In Bittersweet, the story centers around game ranches, deer breeding programs, the laws that apply and how they are so often broken, and the part that game wardens are called on to play when things go very, very wrong.
It all starts out quite innocently. China, her husband McQuaid, and their children Brian and Caitlin are getting ready to go to China's mother's home for Thanksgiving. Leatha, China's mother, calls to let her know that her husband Sam has had a heart attack and is in the hospital. China offers to put off the visit but her mother insists they come down as planned.
Leatha and Sam are in the process of turning their game ranch into a vacation retreat for birders -- a change that they feel is environmentally friendly and still gives them a chance to stay in business. China, of course, is worried that they won't be able to carry on with their plans if Sam is hospitalized and unable to do some of the hard work necessary to get ready for their opening.
So, things go on as planned, including China intending to install some herbs while on her trip in an outdoor space at a popular restaurant near her mother's home. She'd also planned to catch up with Mack Chambers, a game warden she'd become friends with when Mack was working a case near Pecan Springs.
Meanwhile, Ruby Wilcox, China's business partner, confides in China that she's worried about her daughter, Amy. Ruby feels Amy has been acting secretive and weird lately and she's afraid she might having an affair or planning to break up with her partner, Kate. Amy has been rather a wild child and has finally settled down but she's still active in several environmental groups.
All of these threads come together in a pretty tightly plotted and intense story of betrayal, greed, and murder; as well as jealousy, friendship, loyalty, trust, and true family values. In the process readers learn a lot about how trophy game ranches work, and the behind the scenes work that goes into making such ranches work and the laws that are needed to protect the animals, the ranches, and the hunters. I learned a lot and was still entertained.
Each of the books in the China Bayles series can stand alone. Albert gives enough information in the beginning chapters to bring readers unfamiliar with the series basic information about continuing characters and their relationships in the first few chapters and as necessary without being huge info dumps. I always look forward to a new book in the series to learn how the characters have grown and continued to evolve, what topic will be the central to driving the plot of this particular story, and how it will impact the characters I've come to care about.
There's also, as usual, several recipes included at the end of the book. This time I made Leatha's Venison Chili using the stew beef variation and substituting gin for juniper berries (which were not available at any of the several stores I checked). It was fabulous -- tasty and filling. I'll definitely make it again and it may become a family favorite.