Girl Waits With Gun: review

Girl Waits With Gun
Amy Stewart
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

girl waits with gunConstance Kopp and her sisters Norma and Fleurette manage the farm just fine, thank you very much. They garden, raise chickens (and pigeons!), and, since their mother died, have successfully rebuffed brother Francis’s pleas to come live with him and his family in town: “You can’t stay on the farm by yourselves. Three girls, all alone out there?” But Francis is no match for their determined independence. Norma tends her flock of carrier pigeons, Fleurette (the youngest by seventeen years) sews with dramatic flair, and Constance holds everything together. To be sure, life is sometimes lonely, and money short, but they’re managing.

And then on an outing into town, one Henry Kaufman crashes into their buggy with his automobile, destroying it–but not the Kopp girls.

Constance naturally sends Mr. Kaufman an invoice for the damages. But Mr. Kaufman, he of Kaufman Silk Dyeing Company, is much too important and much too self-centered to care a fig about a farm buggy. To be honest, Henry Kaufman is nothing if not a bully. Even worse, he might be connected to the Black Hand, an extortion racket that operated at the turn of the century.

But he’s met his match in Constance Kopp.

The real Constance Kopp

Despite the fact that she’s a woman and the year is 1914, Constance sets out to right the wrong that was done to her family. And that’s where the fun begins. With the help of the local sheriff, Constance pursues justice relentlessly–despite bricks through her window, a break in, and threatening letters. And as she works with Sheriff Heath, she comes to realize what so many of us do–she wants more. She needs something to fulfill her beyond the garden and taking care of the house. The sheriff respects what Constance cannot acknowledge: her sharp mind and quick wit.

If this was just a sweet novel about old-time justice and independent women at the turn of the century, the story would be satisfying enough.

But writer Amy Stewart based her book on a true story. Yes, Miss Constance Kopp did indeed exist–and became one of the first female sheriffs in the U.S. You can read more about her and see archival documents on the author’s website.

And you know what’s even better than this fun novel? There’s a second in the Kopps Sisters Series, Lady Cop Makes Trouble. You can be sure it’s on my TBR pile.

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d: review

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d
Alan Bradley
Delacorte Press

thrice the brinded cat hath mew'dLittle Flavia is growing up.

In her previous adventure, The Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, as well as her new one, Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, Flavia displays more poise and decorum than she ever thought possible. And she’s puzzled by a new-found tendency towards manners and small-talk. Flavia is twelve–and far from the little girl readers met eight books ago.

After only three months at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Canada, Flavia is on her way home again to Buckshaw. Dogger, Father’s Man Friday, meets her at the train station alone, and with sobering news: Colonel De Luce is in hospital. And it’s serious–pneumonia.

Out of sorts that she can’t yet visit her father, Flavia sets out the next morning for St. Tancred, to visit with the vicar and Cynthia. And a simple errand for Cynthia turns up a dead body, a witch, and a famous children’s book author. But of course it does, because Flavia never goes for more than a few pages without turning up some sort of fiendish business. (As if title, a line from the witches’ scene in Macbeth, didn’t already warn us.)

What follows is classic Flavia. She probes. She swabs. She presses the unsuspecting for information. She mixes a few chemicals, and voila! Case solved. Every time I start a Flavia De Luce mystery, I brace myself. Has the charm worn off? After all this time, will the Girl Detective disappoint?

And the answer is always that Flavia is just as charming and delightful as ever. But this novel holds more than one twist of fate. The mystery solved, of course, and one deeply personal to Flavia–a fate that will change her life forever.

Little Pretty Things (review)

Little Pretty Things
Lori Rader-Day
Seventh Street Books

I don’t read mysteries. Never liked ’em. Except when I like them as  here or here  or even here. And of course there’s my beloved Flavia. So maybe I’d better rethink this mystery thing, right?!

Lori Rader-Day’s Pretty Little Things is a pretty straightforward murder mystery from about page 40. Juliet Townsend works a dead end job in a dead end life: she still lives at home with her mother, barely makes enough to make ends meet as a motel housekeeper, and hasn’t had a boyfriend in years. Once a promising high school track star, Juliet found herself running in place at age thirty. She had hoped to go to college on an athletic scholarship–but that was before her best friend and teammate  Madeleine Bell’s crisis kept them from competing in the state finals. Then, only a few weeks later, Maddy is off to college early right after graduation, leaving Juliet in the dust. Bitter, Juliet remains mired in the emotional muck of thatPretty Little Things spring even ten years later.

And then one night Maddy walks into the Mid-Night Inn where Juliet works and rents a room. Over a quick beer, they talk, and still resentful of her losses, Juliet rebuffs Maddy’s attempts to reconnect. Juliet finds that Maddy is everything she is not. A chic big-city gal. Confident. Put together.

Until she’s found dead. And then Juliet has to figure out whether or not Maddy was who she appeared to be.

Because of their tense meeting that night and their rivalry in high school, Juliet is immediately a suspect. And like so many good mysteries, the suspect turns detective to clear her name. In the process of finding that truth, Juliet also discovers that her understanding of her world as a sixteen-year-old was far from clear–she had to relearn her friend’s story as well as her own.

I do love writers who set their stories in the Midwest and that may have been part of my love for Little Pretty Things. The novel takes place in the fictional Midway, just outside of Indianapolis and the characters are true to their Midwestern roots. (Juliet’s mom makes her macaroni and cheese when she gets home from work; porch lights flicker on at dusk; nearly everyone lives in the shadow of their highschool self.) But the Midwest is not all church potlucks and homecoming parades–Rader-Day brings the dark, unseemly side of small town life and high school athletics to light.

When I do read that occasional mystery, I find myself guessing nearly every other chapter–he’s the murderer. Or maybe it’s her. Or him. And my measure of a good whodunit? When my guesses are nearly always wrong … but juuuuust close enough for me to hear the author whisper gotcha! as I turn to that last chapter.

Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster: review and blog tour announcement

Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster (Edelweiss; NetGalley)
Scott Wilbanks
Sourcebooks Landmark
paperback release: August 4, 2015

lemoncholy: (noun) 1. The habitual state in which one makes the best of a bad situation. (adjective) 2. Afflicted with, characterized by, or showing lemoncholy.

I’ll just lay it right out there and tell you I loved this novel from the very start. Imagine a bit of Miss Peregrine’s, House at the End of Hope Street, Time and Again, and Time Traveler’s Wife all stirred up in a pot and Scott Wilbank‘s first novel is just that tasty. Lemoncholy Life begins in the middle, but I’m guessing with time travel that’s just a formality. A letter. A murder. Enough said.

Lemoncholy Life of Annie AsterThings really get rolling when one fine day in 1895 Elsbeth Grundy looks out her door to see a huge (and rather elegant) house sitting in the wheat fields of her back forty. Indignant at the gall of anyone who would build a house on her property without permission (and, seemingly, overnight, mind you!) Elsbeth writes her “neighbor” a letter and pops it in the brass mailbox by the picket fence.

Annie Aster steps through her back door (one she had recently purchased at an antique store and just had installed, by the way) and straight onto a path she’d never seen before. Following it through a garden exploding with roses of every kind, she came to a picket fence—and saw fields of wheat beyond, and in the distance, a small gray cabin. Curious, Annie opens the mailbox to find Elsbeth’s letter. The year is 1995.

And of course the two women begin corresponding across those 100 years. And of course Annie’s new red door is a time conduit. And of course their lives become entwined in ways they didn’t think possible when Annie reads an old newspaper account of a murder—and decides she and Elsbeth just might be able to prevent it.

But in many ways this isn’t a story about Annie and Elsbeth and their time traveling capers. This is a novel rich with complex characters who are trying to find a place in this often cold and heartless world. Like Christian, Annie’s best friend. A car accident left him with a brain injury. He stutters; he’s sometimes lonely. And Edmond. Another loner, who would like to get to know Christian better … but he’s haunted by a secret. And finally, Cap’n—a street urchin who leads a gang of pickpockets and shills in Elsbeth’s world but risks almost everything to help one of the few people who have ever treated her with kindness.

The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster had more plot twists and turns than I could keep track of, at times. If I have any criticism it would be that Wilbanks has enough material here for two books, easily—and instead of the rapid fire connections across time that came at the end of the novel, I’d have loved a sequel with a little more exposition of those back stories.

But no matter. For all you time-traveling, sleuth-loving readers, Lemoncholy Life is not to be missed. And as a special treat, dear reader, author Scott Wilbanks will guest post right here on August 24thThis Is My Symphony’s first time ever participating in a blog tour—and I couldn’t be more excited it’s for this novel!

Sailing the ocean blue: As Chimney Sweepers Come To Dust (review)

As Chimney Sweepers Come To Dust (DRC)
Alan Bradley
Delacorte Press
Release date: January 6, 2015

If you haven’t caught Flavia fever by now, you’re missing out on something special. Twelve-year-old Flavia de Luce is a chemist prodigy-turned-sleuth who has solved any number of thefts, murders, and kidnappings in her six previous adventures.  At the end of The Dead In Their Vaulted Arches we knew Flavia was bound for Canada to train for her role in an As Chimney Sweepers Come To Dust“ancient and hereditary” organization at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy, the very same school her legendary mother Harriet attended.  And true to his word, Bradley opens As Chimney Sweepers Come To Dust with Flavia standing on the deck of an ocean liner–in a storm, covered in sea spray, planning the murder of her chaperone Mr. Rainsmith by champagne and bicarbonate of soda. Flavia fans would expect nothing less.

As to be expected, Flavia and boarding school prove to be an odd bedfellows. At home, playmates were decidedly missing, with Flavia preferring the company of the vicar’s wife and the police inspector. Just how would she manage the drama of dozen’s of girls living under one roof? It helps that she is quickly taken under the wing of the headmistress Miss  Faulthorne—who sympathizes with Flavia on a level she’s not accustomed to–and also finds out that these girls aren’t just any girls. They are, in fact, also members-in-training of Nide, the same group that Flavia’s Aunt Felicity told her she must “learn her way into” at the end of Vaulted Arches. It also helps that by the end of Chapter 2, a mummified body falls out of the fireplace in her room, its desiccated head rolling across the floor and landing at Flavia’s feet.

With that, Flavia is off and running. Those girls I worried about become no more than stand-ins for the adults she was accustomed to interviewing (and, truth be told, manipulating) as she parsed together the truth. As always, Flavia runs into some dead ends and meets any number of decoy characters. She jumps to conclusions and puts herself in danger. But truth she finds.

When I first realized at the end of book six that there would be no more Daphne or Dogger, no more Mrs. Mullet or Colonel, my heart dropped. Buckshaw and Bishop’s Lacey, along with her friends and family, were as much a part of the books’ charms (almost!) as Flavia. But just as the almost-a-teen Flavia was experiencing some growing pains, I, too, wanted to see how Flavia would manage outside the familiarity of Bishop’s Lacey. Bradley’s oh-so-perfect details help with our transition: a chemistry teacher who is an acclaimed—and acquitted—murderer; dorm rooms named after pioneering women (Florence Nightingale, Marie Curie, Edith Cavell); girls singing Ninety-nine bottles of arsenic on the wall. It’s a world of delights.

But it’s the magic of Flavia de Luce herself that successfully carries this little sleuth across the ocean, and us, the reader, with her.