We live on the outskirts of a fantastic town, called St Just, about 9 miles from Penzance, (the best train station to come in to), in Cornwall, UK. It is the most wonderful community, with amazing people, fabulously, useful shops, heavenly cafes, and just so much to do! In July, we made a 13ft Snow White out of willow/withies, and paper, for our local festival, Lafrowda, to promote Pendeen Pantomime. Anyway, I am digressing…in our lovely town, there is a post office, which also sells second-hand books for 20p (money going to Cancer Research). I always find treasures in that pile of books, and one of those treasures helped me discover a new author, who I hadn’t read before: Susan Wittig Albert (https://susanalbert.com/), a best-selling author in America, but not one I had heard of in the UK, which, if you read the rest of this post, you may find truly surprising!
So I started off with “The Darling Dahlias and the Cucumber Tree”, (one of a series of 5 books), and I loved it. It isn’t deep, but it is engaging, entertaining, and educational. It is set in the 1930s, in a small town called Darling, and is about the members of a gardening club, The Darling Dahlias, who unravel the story behind the mysterious death of a local blond bombshell. Being a small town, there are lots of rumours, leading to speculation and drama. The story is full of wonderful characters, and at the start of the book, there is a brief biography for each one. For example, Miss Dorothy Rogers, is Darling’s librarian. She knows the Latin name of every plant and insists that all the garden club members know them too! The author writes really well, and clearly researches her topic, because there are useful details about gardening, and at the back of the book there is a section called “Makin’ do: 12 ways to stretch whatever we have”, which is full of useful advice, still relevant in today’s society. For example, “Save old letters and envelopes and use the backs or notes and lists. But be careful not to use a letter you don’t want someone else to read.” Finally, there are recipes, along with interesting facts, from food that is described in the book, for example, Florabelle’s Soda Bread, and Euphoria;s Peanut Butter Meringue Pie. The author seems to include recipes in all her books, some more appetising than others 😊
Once I had finished that book, I was intrigued to know more about this author. I soon found that she has written lots of books. Two series are along the same lines as the first Darling Dahlias book, set in small American towns, with lots of gossipy and earnest characters. But she has also written a series of books which feature Beatrix Potter as a character, and not only in her capacity as an author, but also as a sleuth! Now, being a huge fan of Beatrix Potter, I was a little concerned about an American author turning the most wonderful Beatrix Potter into a detective, so I ordered just one of The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter series of 8 books. I started off with “The Tale of Briar Bank”, and it was absolutely charming, and so clever. The author portrays Beatrix Potter, just as one might imagine her, describing her life in the Lake District, the challenges she faces with her family, and being a new farmer in a man’s world, and her growing romance with Will Heelis, whom she eventually married in real-life, I believe. It is so well-researched, it is difficult to tell what it fact and what is fiction. I really love this series of books, because it not only presents such a brilliant picture of what it was like in the Lake District at that time, but it also integrates Beatrix Potter’s characters so well, alongside new animal characters. So, you have wonderful human characters, along with the original Beatrix Potter animals who meet new ones created by Susan Wittig Albert. Beatrix Potter is still a successful author, but is also a very well-respected part of the community, with many friends and admirers. In these stories, she has a knack of being very perceptive and manages to resolve any issues between other characters in the book. And this proves very useful, because in this series, there are many problems which need a calm and fair person to find a resolution. But, on top of the usual village goings-on, there is also a mystery to be solved, and in this book, someone is killed, and treasure is involved. Beatrix Potter does solve the mystery, along with Brock the Badger, and Rascal, a Jack Rascal Terrier, and in the two books I have read of this series, the answer is not at all what I thought!
The second book I read in this series, is The Tale of Hawthorn House, another mystery, about an abandoned baby, and the sad demise of a farmer. The villagers, suspect fairy-folk involvement, but Beatrix Potter, despite having such a wonderfully creative mind, figures out what really happened, and ensures that everything becomes right with the world again. In this book, you are reminded of the story of poor Jemima Puddleduck, who just wanted to raise ducklings, but everyone thought she was too fickle to remember to look after them. In this book, the story continues, and you find out what happens next to Jemima. There is quite a troubling section about badger baiting, which I didn’t like, because it explained it quite thoroughly, but it did also make me understand quite a bit, so I found that very educational. Once again, at the end of each book, there are useful additions, including a list of resources, which the author used to inform the book, recipes from food mentioned, and a glossary to explain the dialect. I am not from the Lake District, so I don’t know how accurate it is. If you like Beatrix Potter, then I think you might like this series. The books are so well-written, magical, informative, and I really treasure them. I have managed to track down another two, which I will read once I havefinished a book from another series by Susan Wittig Albert, about a lawyer turned herbalist, who solves crimes. Wormwood is set in a Shaker community, and I am learning so much about what is involved in this religion. I know they had a unique style with regards to the furniture they built, but I didn’t know that Shaker comes from dancing and singing, which was part of their religion. There are really interesting facts about herbs, which are actually making me want to take a herbalist course, and recipes, although I am not too convinced by Vinegar Pie.
At 79 years of age, Susan Wittig Albert is still going strong, and has another book published this year – “A Plain Vanilla Murder”. The common themes to all of her books are that they involve natural history in some way, they have strong female and feminine leads, they contain recipes and other, useful supporting material, and they are just a very good read. Let me know what you think!