Book Review: Wormwood: Book #17 of the China Bales Mystery Series: By Susan Witting Albert
Right off the bat I want to say that nowhere on the cover, front, back or spine, does this book say that it's part of a series. I had no way of knowing that it was, let alone that it was part 17! That's a... I started with a book that is insanely far along. I should have no idea what was going on in this thing, at all. I picked it up because I loved the Beatrix Potter Cottage Series that Albert wrote, and I thought that this should be pretty good too. Actually, I skipped over the listings, because I assumed it would just tell me that the Cottage Series existed, and dove right into the meat of the story. I didn't know it was part of a series until I started looking up pictures and media for this review. So make of that what you will.
The main character, China, reminds me quite a bit of Angelia Lansberry's character, Jessica Fletcher from the TV series: Murder She Wrote, which was a huge hit in the 1980s before I was born, apparently. It was introduced to me through my uncle, and I've come to like it quite a bit as well. Both characters are older, white, American women, who go around solving mysteries, and since this book series didn't come out until 1992, the year the first book, Thyme of Death, was published, I can't help but think that perhaps China was based on Jessica, an homage, if you will. Therefore, if you're a fan of Murder She Wrote, just stop reading this review right now and go pick up the book. I guarantee you'll enjoy it.
The selection of traits for the protagonists is certainly one that I enjoy. We so rarely see older people portrayed as the central character in novels. Generally our protagonists are written for youth and beauty- for mass market appeal. I do wonder, however, if perhaps I'm 17 years into her life, and we didn't meet her as a young woman. She hearkens back to past events that apparently occurred in the prior books; her brother's death, her marriage to a police chief, leaving her successful law firm to open up a herb shop- something that only a fictional character could ever do because I can't imagine such a business succeeding, and there's no way that a police officer could support the lifestyle that she and their two children lead in this book. She's got a big house in Texas and can just go gallivanting off to Kentucky without worrying about the cost. I was raised by a cop. They can't do that. They don't make that much. So we have to suspend our disbelief a little bit and assume that this shop makes enough selling sage and wormwood tinctures to support a family of four and provide vacation money. Kind of difficult for me, but I've read worse.
Alternate Cover: Audiobook
Writing Style Issues
I know in my Cottage Series review I mentioned how much I liked the writing style. I assumed that the quaint, English country side-esque style was meant to mirror the style of Potter herself. I was disappointed to learn that this was not the case. This book reads exactly like the cottage series. It's like when you watch Wizard of Oz and you think, “Man, Billie Burke is a perfect Glinda! This is exactly what Baum envisioned for that character! She must be a brilliant actor!” But then later you see something like Topper or Bridal Suit on AMC and you think, “Wait... is that just her voice? Can... can she not act!? Is my entire childhood a lie?” That's what the literary voice of this author is like.
The actual story itself is set against the backdrop of a Shaker village in Kentucky. I liked this setting, because I'm from Kentucky, I currently live in Kentucky, I know the area, the plants, the way that cities and towns are set up- I find it really immersive. And she did an excellent job. I don't know if the author actually traveled to Kentucky, but if she didn't, I applaud her ability to create a realistic landscape from nothing, and if she did, I complement her attention to detail and her tenacity for research.
Alternative Cover Art
Unfortunately, I can't vouch for her authenticity in regards to the Shakers themselves. Most of the tourist attractions that claim to be Shaker villages are no longer staffed by actual Shakers. The Shakers increased their numbers purely by conversions and eventually just did not have the membership required for the upkeep of the various villages throughout the state,so now they're mostly staffed by reenactors. But I would welcome any input or review from an actual Shaker because I always worry that people aren't represented well in the books that I read about them, especially fiction books.
All in all, I still enjoyed the book. I like the characters and the setting, and I can overlook the simplistic, sometimes strait up bad writing because the story was good enough that you were willing to suffer through the style to find out the solution to the mystery. And it's a twist. I don't want to spoil it for anyone who intends to read the book but I will encourage you to head out and read it! It's worth it.
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