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Annie in Austin
Welcome! As "Annie in Austin" I blog about gardening in Austin, TX with occasional looks back at our former gardens in Illinois. My husband Philo & I also make videos - some use garden images as background for my original songs, some capture Austin events & sometimes we share videos of birds in our garden. Come talk about gardens, movies, music, genealogy and Austin at the Transplantable Rose and listen to my original songs on YouTube. For an overview read Three Gardens, Twenty Years. Unless noted, these words and photos are my copyrighted work.
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Friday, September 28, 2007

Garden Bloggers' Book Club - Thyme of Death

I enjoy mysteries, and some of my favorites are the kind that come as part of a series, with an amateur detective as the main character. For the Garden Bloggers Book Club, Carol has invited us to read a mystery connected to the garden - a sub-species of the mystery that may have its origins with Agatha Christie's Miss Jane Marple and Jane's garden-mad friend Dolly Bantry.

I considered reading the official choice, but decided instead to make the club a reason to buy another volume of the China Bayles series, by Susan Wittig Albert. China's adventures as a lawyer-turned-shop owner are fun to read no matter where you live, but since both she and her creator dwell in Central Texas, for me the local angle is irresistible!

The book I bought is called Thyme of Death - the first China Bayles book, which began the series in 1992. Shortly after we moved here I was introduced to China with a book belonging to the middle of the series so I thought it would be interesting to see how we first meet China Bayles. Susan Albert introduces China as a fully-formed character, with her personality and beliefs evident right from the beginning. I do think that a couple of the other characters seem slightly stereotypical in this first book. China and her friend Ruby lose a terminally ill friend to what looks like suicide, but may actually be murder. We find out a lot about everyone in town as the story unfolds. Thyme of Death was nominated for both Agatha and Edgar awards - the plotting is pretty good, the conversations engrossing, and the details of life in the town of Pecan Springs make the start to the series special.

In real life, Albert's fans have been heartbroken to discover that they can't actually go to China's Thyme and Seasons Herb Shop with it's adjacent garden full of fragrant herbs. Alas! Pecan Springs is not a real town, although after reading one book, you may sympathize with those confused fans and wish that you could visit China's shop, too. There is a genuine sense of place in these mysteries - the town may be fictional, but the geography, biology, botany, genealogy, and meteorology are real. The medical and forensic details of the murders seem well researched, and with a Texas lawyer as the main character, there are opportunities to explore how local laws work, along with some comments on political events. Each book has a relevant plant or herb in the title, and many of the later ones have a recipe or two, including these two favorites.

Susan Wittig Albert is also the author of another mystery series called the
Cottage Tales, with Beatrix Potter as the mystery solving protaganist. We recently rented the recent movie Miss Potter, and enjoyed it very much. I don't require a film biography to be all that accurate - it's a movie! But once the credits have rolled, I want some facts about the real person. I read Susan's review of the movie and found out that most parts of this Beatrix Potter bio-flick were factual, but some scenes were pure fiction, and that timeframes were shifted for dramatic reasons. Now I'd like to read some of the Cottage Tale series, to see how Susan imagines Beatrix - and to guess what kind of actress should be calling her agent and optioning the book!

Susan Albert not only tells a good yarn and spins a fine mystery - she also spins, dyes, weaves and knits real yarn. And she's even a blogger, writing about her Hill Country home and garden, wildlife, and fabric arts at Lifescapes and appears on local PBS, visiting with Tom Spencer at the Central Texas Gardener.

Knowing something about the author is fun, but you can enjoy China Bayles without any backstory - just open the book and head down the path to Pecan Springs.

Added Oct 1st: Carol has links to the other reviews at her Virtual Book Club meeting.


  1. The 1982 "Tale of Beatrix Potter" which aired on PBS was more factual, I believe, l than the 2006 "Miss Potter". I really love the former and you can borrow my VHS tape of it, if you like.

    If you haven't been before, perhaps we should visit The Herb Bar the next time come visiting in South Austin. I haven't read the Susan's books (yet) but The Herb Bar is quite the experience.

  2. Annie,

    Thanks for posting for the Garden Bloggers' Book Club again. I suspected you might pick a China Bayles mystery. It's been awhile since I read a few of them, but I do recall enjoying those I read and think that the herb shop in the book would be a wonderful place to visit. I do like a book that creates a sense of a place that one would like to visit in real life, if it did exist.

    I also bought the first Beatrix mystery, but it sits in a stack of books to be read.

    Carol at May Dreams Gardens

  3. Thanks for the recommendation...I just reserved it at our library!

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. I've read several of the China Bayles books too and really liked them. I am not the type who has to read every single one in a series but I will eventually read more of these.

    And I've also read the first book in the Beatrix Potter mystery series and can recommend that also.

  6. Hi MSS- "Tale of Beatrix Potter" sounds like a good program and if I get a working VHS machine again, you may get a request to borrow it. Although the Herb Bar is probably a cool place, it's not actually the herbs themselves than make one want to visit Thyme & Seasons, but the possibility of encountering the outspoken, quirky staff and customers.

    It was a pleasure, Carol - and thank you for letting us have alternates! It might not have been too hard to guess since the book appeared in my stack on the Annie's Addendum blog, right?

    I've had a book sit around for quite awhile before it seems like the right time to read it.

    Leslie, think of your garden blogging friends in Central Texas when you read it ;-]

    [The removed post was sales spam - not a real person]

    Hello Bill - knowing that you do like China Bayles and did not like the official selection makes me pretty sure I wouldn't have liked it either. And thank you for your recommendation for the Beatrix Potter mystery.


  7. Annie, did you ever see a BBC series called "Rosemary and Thyme" about two lady detectives who were also landscape architects? It was really good.

    I saw the Beatrix Potter movie and I loved it.

  8. oh you have introduced me to 2 sets of books in this review. I can't wait to look them out and start reading. Thanks. sara from farmingfriends

  9. I haven't seen "Miss Potter" yet but it is on my list. Like Josie said, I highly recommend the British tv series "Rosemary and Thyme." It is wonderful!

  10. Good morning Josie and Phillip, thank you for commenting.

    Several people have raved about Rosemary and Thyme, and it sounds delicious! The first DVD is now in my queue.

    I quite enjoyed Miss Potter, including the extras. Ewan McGregor was so charming as Norman, and his having the same name as Peter Rabbit's nemesis amused me.

    Welcome farmingfriends Sara - Since you live on 250 acres in the North of England, it would be very interesting to hear what you think of both the Pecan Springs and Cottage Tales settings!


  11. Ohhh...thanks for reminding me to put Miss Potter on my Netflix list. I will see if my library has any of the books you mentioned here.

  12. Annie... Thanks for the link back to the virtual meeting post. I keep forgetting about Annie's Addendum because I didn't add the feed to my feed reader. I'll fix that! I actually thought you'd pick it for the Texas connection.

    Carol at May Dreams Gardens

  13. Oh no, more books I have to add to my to read list. ;-) Luckily I've already bought and seen the complete tv series of Rosemary and Thyme (great fun!). Miss Potter I haven't seen yet so that's something to look forward to.

    I love reading Agatha Christie for the Britishness of her books. The China Bayles series seem to have a Texan atmosphere to them, sounds like fun to me! Courtesy of one Stephen King, I know now quite a lot about Maine. :-)

  14. Wonderfully detailed review(!), and I see we both enjoyed the book. I like to read a series in the order in which it was written, so I started with Thyme of Death, but if I'm reading you right, it sounds as though this series gets even better as it goes on. It's good to know that the setting is accurately portrayed - all the detail made the book come alive for me. I suppose it tests an author's skills to conjure up a fictionalized version of a real place without veering into stereotype, but the reader can be more forgiving when not familiar with the real place.

    Have you seen the Pecan Springs blog? Ms. Albert is giving her readers a window into her writing process for the next book in the series.

  15. How strange. I read about this book not too long ago on Chuck B's blog (I seem to remember that he picked it up after his big garage sale). I didn't have especially high expectations -- he didn't review it -- and was surprised at how engaging it was. Now I'm well into the series and really enjoying it. It's just funny that it would turn up twice in such a short time!

    And I totally agree about the local flavor -- I live in Fort Worth and love the 'slow road' to Austin through Hico, Hamilton, Marble Falls, etc. China's shop could be in any one of those little towns!

  16. I love this mystery series. Started reading it when the books first started appearing and keep up with China, Ruby et al. with each new book.


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