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.

A great escape: The Life We Bury (review)

The Life We  Bury (Edelweiss DRC)
Allen Eskens
Seventh Street Books

I usually pass over mystery or crime novels–but something in the blurb for this title pulled me in. It could have been that the main character, Joe Talbot, was an English major . It could have been the mention of his autistic brother. Or it could have been the convicted murderer living out his last days in a nursing home. But whatever drew my attention, The Life We Bury was a good read.

life we buryJoe Talbot has finally escaped–his alcoholic mom, his needy autistic brother, and the small town where they lived: Austin, Minnesota, home of Spam. (And that sad fact pretty much sums up Joe’s dismal life.)  He had managed to save enough money for a year at the University of Minnesota and he was out of there. Joe didn’t even allow himself  to dwell on the guilt of abandoning his brother Jeremy. It was either leave or stay forever and drown in bitterness.

But escapes are rarely as easy as they seem in the planning, and Joe’s was no different. No sooner had he started classes than his mother called. From jail. Drunk. And needing him to bail her out and  care for Jeremy, who, at eighteen, was really no more than a five-year-old. Walking in the door and finding Jeremy glued to his current movie obsession Pirates of the Caribbean, Joe makes a snap decision–he’d take Jeremy back to his apartment in Minneapolis.

Carl Iverson had also made an escape of sorts. Convicted of the murder of a 14-year-old neighbor girl, he had done his time, released to a nursing home only because pancreatic cancer would soon kill him. (Not much of an escape if you ask me.)  Joe meets Carl to interview him for a project for a creative writing class. Carl wants to die with a clean conscience–he tells Joe he wants to finally tell the truth. And that’s when the novel starts gathering momentum.

Joe gets the case files, talks to the public defender, pours over old newspaper articles about the trial. He looks up  the victim’s step-brother. He meets Carl’s good friend Virgil who vehemently claims Carl’s innocence. And Joe is hooked.

Of course there’s a girl involved and before long they join forces to prove Carl’s innocence. The only question is … who’s the real killer? And that, crime novel aficionados will realize, results in a chase, a missed clue, and another escape.

Being a Great Lakes midwesterner, I love novels set in my ‘country’. Writer Allen Eskens lives in Minnesota where he practiced law before turning to writing. Eskens captures the decency that (I think) only natives understand. (My bookstore friend also read it and you can read her review here.) The Life We Bury would be a great gift this holiday season–and (shhhh, don’t tell!) if you turn the pages carefully, maybe you could sneak a read before wrapping it up.

A 40-pound Detective

Noah’s Rainy Day (NetGalley)
Sandra Brannan
release date: Sept. 3, 2013

Although normally being called a vegetable or broken might hurt my feelings, for the first time in my life, I was relieved that someone thought of me that way. I knew that if the scaredy-cat neighbor believed I couldn’t think or speak -being nothing more than a vegetable–the little boy would stay safer somehow. I sensed this … I went into spy mode and pretended to be a vegetable, since invisibility was out of the question.

Noah opens his story with, “The good news is I think I broke my leg. The bad news is I don’t know if anyone at school would ever believe how it happened. Or worse, I’m not sure it anyone will ever figure out how I got here.” The boy is obviously in some pretty steep trouble, but backs up his story to tell us a little about himself: he’s a 40 pound 12-year-old with cerebral palsy who can’t speak and is blind in one eye. He spends his days in his wheelchair or on the floor–missing nothing that goes on around him. His younger sister Emma is one of the few people who communicates overtly with him, using the “five finger method” where each digit and each knuckle represents a letter. She tracks his eyes and “reads” his spelling. The rest of the

family relies on intuition to “talk” to him.

One of his favorite people is Aunt Liv Bergen, special agent with the FBI. And her arrival on Christmas Eve to celebrate with Noah’s family makes the holiday that much more special. Until, that is, she’s abruptly called away as on an assignment: five-year-old Maximilian Bennett Williams III, son of a multi-millionaire and supermodel has disappeared from Denver International Airport. Liv’s investigation lasts long into the night and she misses Christmas morning. Still hoping for her return before Christmas dinner, Noah and Emma play in the snow and meet a chatty little boy who’s visiting “Papa”, Noah’s creepy next door neighbor who live alone, rarely goes out, and never has company. Hmmmmm …

Liv works the airport with her tracking dog Beulah; we meet a whole cast of agents, officers … and a possible love interest or two. Brannan keeps the story moving quickly as the FBI and local police try to piece together any clues that might lead them to recover little Max. Alternating narrators between Noah and Liv, Brannan lets us solve the crime as they do. And then she lets little Max narrate a chapter, and next Noah’s creepy neighbor Jason Fletcher. And then Noah disappears, too.

I’m not one for detective novels (except for my much-loved Flavia DeLuce!), but this one kept me swiping my Kindle pages quickly. Although this is the fourth Liv Bergen novel in a series, I wasn’t lost jumping in. The characters were engaging, the plot was fast-paced–you add a tracking dog and a kid who’s one smart cookie, and you’ve got Noah’s Rainy Day. 

Then and now

The Longings of Wayward Girls (Galley Alley)
Karen Brown

Karen Brown’s Longings of Wayward Girls is one of the only chick lit titles I’ve read this summer … and it’s a great one! Brown tells the story of Sadie at twelve and Sadie years later as wife and mother. Because what happened to Sadie then was haunting the Sadie now.

Sadie then was a bright, imaginative, and pretty girl–the ringleader of the neighborhood children in her hometown of Wintonbury. She writes the Christmas chorale, organizes the annual Haunted Woods, and plays endless hours of Old-Fashioned House. Her best friend Betty ever at her side,

Sadie’s life in suburban Connecticut in the seventies is idyllic. Except for her pill-popping, alcoholic mom and the teenage boy she seduces. And the girl, Laura Loomis, who disappears one day, never to be found. Or the neighborhood outcast who, Sadie learns, is abused by her father. How about the unfathomable torment one girl can inflict upon another?

Sadie now is a pulled-together, fashionable stay-at-home-mom who still lives in Wintonbury (albeit in a newer upscale neighborhood) and whose life continues that idyll. Except for her grief over the still born daughter she mourns. Or her ineffectual paperdoll of a husband. And the suffocating boredom she feels. Enter Ray Filley, a crush from her tween-hood, back in town after his father’s death–single, handsome, infatuated with Sadie, and dangerous. It’s when Sadie takes up with Ray that her then and now collide in a harrowing way. I must admit that at times I thought I’d mistakenly picked up a suspense novel and I read the end of the novel flipping pages as quickly as I could.

Karen Brown has a keen eye for the inner world of women–our boredom and frustration, the endless demands and stalled careers–and the tolls we pay to live out the life of June Cleaver. I can’t think of a better book to discuss in Book Club. It would be one long night.