Thursday, June 8, 2023

The Mask of Memory: Victor Canning

I read The Mask of Memory by Victor Canning in March of this year. Published in 1974, it is the 3rd book in a loose series called the Birdcage books. They all revolve around a covert security group in the UK, a branch of the Ministry of Defense. The agents are generally amoral, although they believe that their mission is important to the welfare of the country. 

In this book, there are two plotlines. One deals with an effort to expose nefarious activities of a left wing trade union movement before an election; the most experienced operative in the security group, Bernard Tucker, investigates this situation. 

The second narrative revolves around Bernard's wife, Margaret, who has been neglected by her husband and is growing more and more unhappy in the marriage. Margaret walks on the beach near her home frequently; she meets Maxie Dougall on one of her walks. Maxie had engineered the meeting, and has plans to ensnare her in a relationship. The reader discovers that Bernard has kept his wife and his home in North Devon from his boss and coworkers in the security group, and will probably lose his job if this is discovered. 

My Thoughts:

The story is very complex and there are twists and revelations throughout the book. Canning does a beautiful job of developing interesting characters. Margaret was the most sympathetic character, but all were interesting and I wanted the best ending for all of them. Thus the book was much more upbeat than the first two books in the series.

Another plus for me is that this novel had beautiful descriptions of the countryside and the birds in North Devon. Maxie is an artist, although not very good, and he supports himself selling his drawings of birds. 

I enjoyed the first two books in the series, Firecrest and The Rainbird Pattern,  but this one was my favorite so far. I will be moving on to the fourth book in the series, The Doomsday Carrier, soon. It is on my 20 Books of Summer list.

The blogger (Nick Jones at Existential Ennui) who introduced me to this series questioned whether the books were really a series after reading the first three books and not recognizing any connecting characters in the books. I had the same experience. The description of the series at the Spy Guys and Gals web site notes that there are some characters that occur in multiple books, and some of those show up in this book. Nevertheless, I think these books can be read as standalone books. 


Publisher:   Collier Books, 1990 (orig. pub. 1974)
Length:       260 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Birdcage books #3
Setting:      UK
Genre:        Espionage fiction
Source:      Purchased at Planned Parenthood book sale, 2019.

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Short Story Wednesday: More Stories from Mick Herron


Dolphin Junction by Mick Herron was published in 2021 and features 11 short stories previously published between 2006 and 2019.

The  book includes four stories about the Oxford wife-and-husband detective team of Zoë Boehm and Joe Silvermann, characters from Herron's Oxford Investigations series, plus a story about Jackson Lamb, top agent in the Slow Horses series, which goes back to a time in the past when he had an assignment in Berlin. There are also six short stories with no connection to any of his novels.

Back in April of this year, I read the first six short stories from Dolphin Junction. My review of the six stories is here.

This week I read the remaining five stories. Here are my descriptions and thoughts on those stories.

"The Other Half" 

The third Joe Silvermann / Zoë Boehm story in the book. This one focuses primarily on Joe, who is approached by an acquaintance whose apartment was recently trashed by his ex-girlfriend after he broke up with her. He wants Joe to help him get revenge.

“All the Livelong Day” 

A man and his wife are on a five-day break from work, which is mostly a walking holiday. The couple appears to be having marital problems, with lots of resentments brewing on both sides. On the third day they take a long hike off the beaten track, and get lost. There is a flock of birds swirling above a farmhouse that causes anxiety for the wife as she goes in search of help for her husband, who has injured his leg badly. This was one of the longer stories in the book at 45 pages. A lot of reviewers liked this story, but it was not my type of story. Too full of dread.

“The Last Dead Letter” 

This is the story that features Jackson Lamb and Molly Doran, the MI5 archivist, both from the Slow Horses series. Molly relates a story about a Berlin operative during the cold war who falls in love, and hopes that Jackson Lamb will tell her how it ends. I always welcome any additional stories about Slough House and its operatives, and this one gives another view of Jackson Lamb.

"The Usual Santas"

An unusual Christmas story. This is the story of a giant shopping mall that has hired a group of eight Santas that rotate assignments during the Christmas season. The eight Santas work at the mall in this position every year and at the end of each Christmas season there is a party. They go in their Santa costumes and never introduce themselves to each other. (A rather unusual and somewhat unbelievable premise.) This year a ninth Santa shows up and they cannot determine who is the fake Santa, which leads to some philosophical discussions. The story is cynical but also cheerful with an upbeat ending.

"What We Do"

This is the last Joe Silvermann / Zoë Boehm story in the book. This time the story is primarily about Zoë, who is in a 50-minute session with a therapist. She has to fill 50 minutes, so she tells him about a recent case. The story had a good twist, which I did not expect.

Reading the four stories in Dolphin Junction featuring Zoë Boehm and Joe Silvermann makes me want to return to the Oxford Investigations novels soon. I have read the first two books in that series, and the next two are on my TBR. That series focuses on Zoë Boehm and Sarah Tucker.

You can find another review of this book and a full list of the stories at George Kelley's blog.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Short Story Wednesday: Robert Olen Butler


This week I read three stories from Had a Good Time: Stories from American Postcards by Robert Olen Butler. My husband purchased this book recently and read all the stories and liked the book very much. 

Butler collects postcards from the early 1900s and he used some of these postcards as the basis for the stories in this book. Thus all of the stories are set in that time period. 

Each story is preceded by an image of the front and back of the postcard, and the message on the postcard is reproduced. 

I read the first three stories. Each was written in first person narrative, and they all were between 10-20 pages in length. I enjoyed all of them. 

"Hotel Touraine" is about a bellboy working at the hotel, and his reaction to the very rich guests, in particular one very young man who is heir to millions. 

"Mother in the Trenches" is a bit different, based on a photo of a woman in the trenches with those words written at the bottom. The narrator of the story is a woman who has journeyed from the US to France to visit her son in the infantry. A very moving story.

"The Ironworkers' Hayride" is more humorous than the first two stories, and a bit longer. The narrator is an introverted young man who works as an accountant for the ironworks in Sunnyvale, California. Another man has asked him to take his sister-in-law on a hayride and he has told him that the sister-in-law has a wooden leg. I am not sure if the narrator is too shy or worried about the wooden leg, but he eventually gives in and escorts her on the hayride. This was Glen's favorite story in the book, although he liked them all. This story was made into a one-act opera with libretto by Robert Olen Butler. 

When I first read these stories I thought "Mother in the Trenches" was my favorite of the three. But in the days since I read them, parts of all three of them have returned to my mind often, so I guess I just like them all.

I have never read anything else by Robert Olen Butler, but I will be reading the remaining stories in this book and look for other short stories by him.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

A Summer Challenge: 20 Books of Summer 2023


This is my eighth year of participating in the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge. The event is hosted by Cathy at 746 Books

This year, 20 Books of Summer starts June 1st and ends September 1st. I completed my list of 20 books in 2018 and 2019, but in other years I had mixed results. 

I always have a problem with reviewing all the books, but this year I am putting my priority on reviewing the books rather than finishing the list. We will see how that goes.

The event is very flexible. You can go for 15 Books of Summer or 10 Books of Summer if 20 is more than you want to commit to. Books can be substituted along the way. And that is fine. See this link for a description of the event. 

Coming up with the list is the best part. Here is my list of books.


Mindful of Murder by Susan Juby

A Dying Fall by Elly Griffiths

Sworn to Silence by Linda Castillo

A Man's Head by Georges Simenon

Murder Most Fowl by Bill Crider

The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny 

Disco for the Departed by Colin Cotterill

Sleep and His Brother by Peter Dickinson

The Mitford Murders by Jessica Fellowes

Spy Fiction

Our Man in Camelot by Anthony Price

SS-GB by Len Deighton (alternative history)

The Mulberry Bush by Charles McCarry

The Doomsday Carrier by Victor Canning

Science Fiction 

The Last Colony by John Scalzi


The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff and Frank Doel

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullars


Jane Austen Cover to Cover by Margaret Sullivan

Number One Is Walking: My Life in the Movies and Other Diversions by Steve Martin, illus. by Harry Bliss (graphic novel)

A Fire Story by Brian Fies (graphic novel)

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Short Story Wednesday: Tiny Tales by Alexander McCall Smith


I purchased Tiny Tales at the last Planned Parenthood Book Sale, in September 2022. The subtitle is "Stories of Romance, Ambition, Kindness, and Happiness." Alexander McCall Smith is a well-known author of mysteries, and he has written multiple series. I read the first book in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series (twenty years ago) but stopped there. I have never tried any of his other writing, until now.

I was attracted to Tiny Tales because there are illustrations by Iain McIntosh between each set of stories. These are single-page cartoons, with the text written by McCall Smith. The format of the book is small, and the stories appear to all be very short, each under 10 pages.

The first set of stories is titled Tales of Love.


This is a very short story (three pages), very silly, and also fun. It is about a young woman learning to do a parachute jump.

"Sister Angelica" 

This story about a former nun and missionary is a little longer. Angelica Docherty was recruited to the Order of the Little Helpers at a very young age, while in a Catholic Girls School just outside Austin, Texas. She eventually ends up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana with her friend, Francesca. Angelica is no longer a nun but still doing good deeds.

"By Post" 

A man orders a bride from Thailand but she cannot speak a word of English. It is a sweet story with a lovely ending. 

"Takahashi Ichiro, Passenger-pusher" 

This story is told in first person by Takahashi Ichiro. He began his working life as a passenger-pusher, an oshiya in Japanese. He would push passengers into carriages on a train so that the doors would close efficiently. This is a real occupation, although maybe not as much used today as in the past. This was another light story with a happy ending, but my favorite part was learning about passenger-pushers.

I enjoyed these stories and the illustrated cartoons that followed. I will continue reading the stories and I hope they are all as much fun.

Sunday, May 7, 2023

Books Read in March and April 2023

I skipped a reading summary for March so this is a combo summary for March and April. I read ten books in March and five in September. In April, all the books I read were crime fiction. In March, I read a biography, a graphic novel, two books of general fiction, and a fantasy novel, in addition to crime fiction novels. 

Nonfiction / Biography

The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family (2001) by Mary S. Lovell

After reading The Six by Laura Thompson, I felt like I could benefit from another look at the Mitford family. I hoped for more information about Jessica, Pam and Deborah. And I definitely got that. Also more about their parents, although their brother Tom was only touched on. See my full review here.

Graphic novel

A Man and His Cat, Vol. 3 (2019) by Umi Sakurai (Writer and Artist) 

There are 10 volumes in this Japanese manga series. In the first volume, a widower, Kanda, seeks a cat as a companion, and finds his perfect match at a pet store. The man falls in love with his new cat and names him Fukumaru. The stories in the first and second volume are mostly about Kanda learning to live with and take care of a cat. In the third volume, some earlier relationships in his life are explored. I will be reading more in this charming manga series. See my review of volumes 1-3.

General Fiction

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (1971) by Elizabeth Taylor

Mrs. Palfrey, a widow living on a fixed income, has just moved into an extended residence hotel in London. There are a small number of older residents who are living there permanently. She is proud and trying to fit in, and ashamed that she has no one to visit her.  It explores the time in life when people are alone and moving toward a time when they need more care, so it is not very upbeat but also not a complete downer. It was a very good book and I will be looking for more by this author.

Dear Life: Stories (2012) by Alice Munro

I started reading this book of short storied in November 2022 and finished them in March of this year. There are fourteen stories in the book. Some of them are exceptionally good and I liked the stories overall very much. Alice Munro is a Canadian author and I liked the Canadian setting. I will be reading more of her short stories. See my posts on the first eight stories and the next six stories.


Assassin's Apprentice (1995) by Robin Hobb

I haven't read a lot of fantasy, and certainly not a lot of high fantasy. This first book in the Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb has a medieval fantasy setting.  I took  a chance on this one because of Cath's review of The Mad Ship from the Liveship Traders Trilogy by the same author. I loved it and I will be reading more of the trilogy. My review is here.

Crime Fiction

Time to Murder and Create (1976) by Lawrence Block

This is the second book in the Matthew Scudder series. I read the first book in the series back in 2011 and it took me this long to return to it. My goal is to read as many books in the series as I can; there are 17 books. In this novel, Matthew is hired by a criminal to avenge his death. The criminal, who has been supporting himself with blackmail, supplies Matthew with information on his current victims, as he suspects one of them of planning to murder him. I enjoyed this book and read it very quickly, but I suspect that the series get much better as it goes along.

Baby, Would I Lie? (1994) by Donald Westlake

This book is the second book in a two-part series about Sara Joslyn and Jack Ingersoll. Both are journalists, and they are covering the trial of country singer Ray Jones for the rape and murder of Belle Hardwick. See my review here.

The Mask of Memory (1974) by Victor Canning

The Mask of Memory is the third book in the Birdcage series. The series is about a covert security group in the UK, a branch of the Ministry of Defense. In this book, one of the top agents is leading a double life. He is married to a woman who lives in North Devon; she does not know what he does for a living and sees him infrequently. No one in his group knows that he is married, or of the existence of the home in North Devon. I enjoyed the first two books in the series and this one was also very good. I will be moving on to the fourth book in the series, The Doomsday Carrier, soon.

4:50 from Paddington (1957) by Agatha Christie

This is the 7th Jane Marple mystery. Jane Marple's friend Elspeth McGillicuddy sees a man strangling a woman in a passing train. She tells the railway officials and later the police, but no one can find any evidence of a crime, and they don't really believe her. Jane Marple decides to investigate. After finishing almost all the Hercule Poirot novels in 2021, I now want to finish up the Miss Marple series.

Murder in a Nunnery (1940) by Eric Shepherd

The first of two short novels set in Harrington Convent. I read this book for the 1940 Club organized by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings. My review is here.

Bad Faith (2002) by Aimée and David Thurlo

Bad Faith is the first book in a series about a nun who solves mysteries. The setting is in New Mexico. Sister Agatha is an extern nun who deals with the outside world for her order. I liked the mystery but the really interesting part was reading about the cloistered nuns and their daily life. There are only six in the series and I would definitely read more of them if I have the time.

The So Blue Marble (1940) by Dorothy B. Hughes

This book was Dorothy B. Hughes' debut mystery novel. It is unlike any other book by Hughes that I have read. In a Lonely Place and Ride a Pink Horse are noir novels, with a much more serious tone. This one is also on the noir side but more fantastical, and requires a good bit of suspension of disbelief. See my review here.

The Blind Man of Seville (2003) by Robert Wilson

Although I had decided earlier to stop reading Robert Wilson's novels because most of them had too much graphic violence and sex for me, I took a chance on this book, because it is set in Seville, Spain. This book did have those elements, but I was glad I took a chance on the book. The setting and character development was very good.

The Echoing Strangers (1952) by Gladys Mitchell

This is the 25th novel in Gladys Mitchell's Mrs. Bradley series. There are two plot threads. The first takes place mostly in the village of Wetwode on the River Burwater, where Francis Caux lives with his guardian, Miss Higgs. A murder victim is discovered near to the riverside bungalow that Francis lives in. The second follows a separate murder investigation in the village of Mede, where Derek Caux, Francis's twin, lives with his grandfather, Sir Adrian Caux. I read this book as part of a group read hosted at Jason Half's blog. The first of four posts about the novel is here.

Body Line (2011) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

I used to love the Bill Slider mystery series but got side-tracked. In April, I decided to pick it up again with Body Line, the 13th book in the series. I had just finished a very violent and dark police procedural and I wanted to go in the opposite direction. There is a strong focus on the lives of the two major characters (Slider and his partner Atherton) in addition to the investigation of the crime. I will be looking for the next in the series.

My husband was on jury duty for a few days recently. The images at the top and bottom of the post were taken at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, while he was there. The courthouse building has lovely grounds and architecture. Click on the images for the best viewing quality.