Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Short Story Wednesday: More Stories from Alice Munro


Back in November 2022 I read the first eight stories in Dear Life, a short story collection by Alice Munro. This week I read the remaining six stories. Overall I was very pleased with my first experience with reading stories by Alice Munro. I am not sure this collection was the best choice for a novice reader of Munro's stories, since it is a later collection, but there were some very good stories in the book. 

Following are my thoughts on the last six stories in the collection:

"In Sight of the Lake" and "Dolly" are both about elderly women and on the sad side. Since I am also elderly it wasn't pleasant reading. But both were very good stories. 

In "In Sight of the Lake," Nancy has an appointment with a doctor to discuss her "mind problem." She has to drive to a town nearby to find the doctor's office which she has never visited before. She gets lost and upset along the way. The ending surprised me. 

The second story I read, "Dolly," was less straightforward. An older couple, not married but living together, are planning their deaths; he is 83, she is 71. The woman narrates the story. The man decides not to go ahead with the plan because the woman is much younger. Sometime after that, the couple meet a female friend from his past. The man, who is a poet, even wrote a poem about her. The narrator feels threatened by this experience. The end of this story is very poignant.

The last four works in the book are described by the author as "not quite stories." They are somewhat, but not entirely, autobiographical. 

  • "The Eye" goes back to Munro's childhood, and is about her relationship with her mother. 
  • "Night" describes a bout with appendicitis and the aftermath, and is about her relationship with her father. It is very touching. 
  • In "Voices," she goes with her mother to a dance at a neighbor's house. A prostitute is at the dance, and her mother is upset by this and they leave soon after they arrive. My least favorite story in this group.
  • "Dear Life" covers a lot of ground, focusing on her father's various occupations and how they affected her life and her mother's gradual deterioration from Parkinson's disease.

With the exception of "Voices," I liked all of those, although I don't enjoy reading about unhappy childhoods, and that is what she seemed to be describing.

My post on the first eight stories in the collection is here. I read this book for the Canadian Reading Challenge. The author is Canadian and her stories often are set there.

"In Sight of the Lake" is available online on The Nobel Prize site. It isn't a very long story so it is easy to read online. The Nobel Prize in Literature 2013 was awarded to Alice Munro for "master of the contemporary short story."

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Two Country Music Mysteries

In this post I am covering two humorous mystery novels set in the country music world. 

The first book was Fender Benders by Bill Fitzhugh, published in 2001. I read it in February.

This book is about a young country music singer in Nashville who makes it big with his first song. Eddie Long has high ambitions to become a big star and has been playing small gigs in Alabama and Mississippi; then his wife dies, possibly a suicide, and he heads for Nashville. He writes a song inspired by her death, and is noticed by a pair of well-known producers, Big Bill Herndon and Franklin Peavy. 

Jimmy Rogers, a freelance journalist, is writing Eddie's biography; he and Eddie had been planning the book since before Eddie went to Nashville. Jimmy gets shut out of the rights to the biography by Eddie's managers but decides to go ahead; while gathering facts, he begins to suspect that Eddie killed his wife. As the story moves along it gets darker and darker. 

There were many things I liked about Fender Benders, including reading about the country music business, how albums are made and such, but almost all of the characters are very unlikable. Sometimes I am OK with that, but this time it did not work well for me. There are funny moments throughout, but the story is also very dark and cynical.  It was the great plotting and pacing which kept me reading, and I had to know how it ended. 

A possible problem for some readers is that although one murder is solved, the one that starts the whole story is kind of left hanging.  

In early March, I started Baby, Would I Lie? by Donald E. Westlake, published in 1994. This next book was suggested to me by Todd Mason at Sweet Freedom, since it also had a country music theme. It had been on my shelves for six years, and it was a good companion read to Fender Benders.

Baby, Would I Lie? is part of a two-part series (a duology). In the first book, Trust Me on This, Sara Joslyn and Jack Ingersoll are working for the Galaxy, a supermarket tabloid that pays its employees three times the going rate but also demands that they use any means possible, often illegal and demeaning, to get the news. In the following book, Sara and Jack have escaped the Galaxy and are working at Trend, a Manhattan weekly magazine. Sara has been sent to Branson, Missouri, a center for live entertainment and tourism, to cover the trial of country singer Ray Jones for the rape and murder of Belle Hardwick. Staff from the Galaxy are also setting up in Branson, looking for any dirt that they can rake up.

I liked the character portrayals. Sara has a lot of sympathy with Ray Jones, and understands the love that his fans have for him, but she is there for the story. Jack is now her boss at Trend, but his main goal is to get revenge on the Galaxy and expose the underhanded methods they use. Ray Jones doesn't seem at all worried by the trial. All the evidence against him is circumstantial. A side plot concerns a large amount of money that Ray owes to the IRS. And there are many interesting secondary characters that go beyond caricatures.

This book was more of a fun read than Fender Benders and a different look at the country music industry. This one also focused on journalism as the main characters worked for a weekly magazine. 

Important things to know:

  • The mystery (did Ray Jones actually murder Belle Hardwick and if not, who did) is not central to the story. 
  • It is not necessary to read the first book in the Sara and Jack series, both can stand alone. But they work better as a pair.
  • Some reviewers felt that the portrayal of Branson, Missouri, and the tourists who visit, is mean-spirited. In retrospect, I can see that, although I did not take it too seriously. 

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Classics Club Spin #33: My List

The latest Classics Club Spin has been announced. To join in, I choose twenty books from my classics list. On Sunday 19th March, 2023, the Classics Club will post a number from 1 through 20. The goal is to read whatever book falls under that number on my Spin List by Sunday the 30th April, 2023.

So, here is my list of 20 books for the spin...

  1. Show Boat (1926) by Edna Ferber [299 pages]
  2. Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury
  3. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) by James Cain
  4. My Ántonia (1918) by Willa Cather
  5. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) by Roald Dahl
  6. Goodbye to Berlin (1939) by Christopher Isherwood
  7. The Wind in the Willows (1908) by Kenneth Grahame 
  8. The Quiet American (1958) by Graham Greene   [180 pages]
  9. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) by Patricia Highsmith
  10. We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) by Shirley Jackson
  11. A Wrinkle in Time (1962) by Madeleine L'Engle
  12. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940) by Carson McCullers
  13. Cannery Row (1945) by John Steinbeck 
  14. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson
  15. Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker    [420 pages]
  16. The 13 Clocks (1950) by James Thurber
  17. The Warden (1855) by Anthony Trollope
  18. The Optimist's Daughter (1972) by Eudora Welty   [180 pages]
  19. Things Fall Apart (1958) by Chinua Achebe   [209 pages]
  20. The Nebuly Coat (1903) by John Meade Falkner

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Reading Summary for February 2023


I did not read a lot this month but I enjoyed all of my reading. I was reading The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Nancy S. Lovell throughout the month, off and on; it was a very slow read for me. I recently finished that book (on March 10) and I have already started reading The Mitfords: Letters between Six Sisters (which is over 800 pages).

Nonfiction / Books about Books

Books for Living (2016) by Will Schwalbe

On Goodreads, in his author bio, Schwalbe describes Books for Living as a book "about the role books can play in our lives and how they can show us how to live each day more fully and with more meaning." Each chapter focuses on a book that he has read that is special to him, and what he learned from it. This book can also be categorized as a memoir, and those parts of it are interesting also. This book counts for the Bookish Books Reading Challenge hosted by Bloggin' 'bout Books.

Graphic novel

A Man and His Cat, Vol. 2 (2018) by Umi Sakurai (Writer and Artist)

This is a short graphic novel from Japan about a widower who lives alone and decides to get a cat for the first time. This second volume provides some hints to his life with his wife and flashbacks to his childhood and continues to emphasize his love and enjoyment of his cat. I have started reading volume 3. Per Goodreads, there are now 10 books in the series.  

Cartoon Collection

Revenge of the Librarians (2022) by Tom Gauld

I have seen Tom Gauld's cartoons from time to time on the internet, but this is the first collection of his comics that I have read. Some are about librarians and libraries. Some are about the writing process, or TBR piles, or bookshelves. Not all of them are about books but a large percentage of them are. Some of my favorites are lockdown humor from during the pandemic. This book also counts for the Bookish Books Reading Challenge

Crime Fiction

The Cover Wife (2021) by Dan Fesperman

This is the second book in an espionage series by Dan Fesperman. The main character in this book is Claire Saylor, a CIA agent stationed in Paris who is sent to Hamburg, Germany to pose as the wife of an academic. I will definitely be reading the third book in the series, which returns to an earlier time in Claire's career. See my review.

Bullet Train (2010) by Kotaro Isaka

I read this book for the Japanese Literature Challenge hosted at Dolce Bellezza. The book was adapted to film and I saw the film first. I liked the book a lot, and the train setting was a plus. My review here.

Fender Benders (2001) by Bill Fitzhugh

This is a humorous mystery about the county music business in Nashville. There were many things I liked about it, including reading about the country music business, but almost all of the characters are very unlikable. Yet I still found this to be a compelling read and I had to know how it ended.

Currently reading

In addition to reading the letters of the Mitford Sisters, which I am sure I will be taking breaks from, I am also reading The Mask of Memory by Victor Canning. This is the 3rd book in an espionage series about a "dirty tricks" department in British Intelligence. 

Status of challenges

  • Fender Benders by Bill Fitzhugh was my first read for the 2023 TBR Pile Challenge.
  • I have now read two books for the Bookish Books Reading Challenge.
  • Four of the books I read in February count for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge, for a total of 10 (out of my goal of 48).

We recently revisited the grounds of Stow House, on a rare day when we had overcast skies, which is great for taking photos. The images at the top and bottom of the post were taken on that walk. It was in late January after the rains and the area was so much more green and beautiful.

My husband took the photos. Click on the images for the best viewing quality.

Thursday, March 9, 2023

The Cover Wife: Dan Fesperman


This is the second book in an espionage series by Dan Fesperman. The main character in this book is Claire Saylor, a CIA agent stationed in Paris who is sent to Hamburg, Germany to pose as the wife of an academic who has published a controversial book about writings in the Quran. The story is set in Hamburg, Germany and begins in 1999. Claire is in her early forties.

The story is told from the perspective of three people:  Claire; Mahmoud, a young man with an American mother and a Moroccan father who wants to be accepted into an Al Qaeda cell in Hamburg; and Ken Donlan, an FBI agent who liaises with the CIA and has been sent to surveil specific members of the cell. 

What I liked:

  • The characters are drawn very well, especially the main characters. And they are all likable; I cared about them. That helps a lot when reading a book. 
  • I like stories told from multiple perspectives and that works especially well here. More knowledge is shared earlier in the book, yet the suspense is maintained.
  • The spy fiction writers I prefer place the emphasis on characters and how the work affects them, over action, violence, and chase scenes. Dan Fesperman's stories have a slow build up to the final events. There is tension, but the story doesn't bounce all over the place. 
  • The Claire Saylor series features strong female characters -- agents who are capable and want to do more but often get sidelined because of their sex. The first book in the series, Safe Houses, featured a different female agent stationed in West Berlin, Germany, in her early twenties, whose main assignment is overseeing the safehouses in the city. She accidentally overhears a dangerous conversation which leads to her death many years later. In that book Claire Saylor, also early in her career with the CIA,  doesn't show up until the last third of the book, but she has an important role, and the two agents form a lifetime bond.

Spy fiction is one of my favorite subgenres and this was a very engrossing read. I will definitely be reading the third book in the series, which returns to an earlier time in Claire's career.


Publisher:  Vintage Crime / Black Lizard, 2022 (orig. pub. 2021)
Length:   321 pages
Format:   Trade paperback
Series:    Claire Saylor, #2
Setting:   Germany
Genre:    Spy fiction
Source:   I purchased my copy in 2022.

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Short Story Wednesday: Murder by the Book

I recently started reading short stories from Murder by the Book: Mysteries for Bibliophiles, edited by Martin Edwards. It is a part of the British Library Crime Classics series, published in the US by Poisoned Pen Press. 

There are 16 stories in the book, and I have now read 6 of them. So far, I have enjoyed them all. Each story has a brief introduction of the author and the story, which were especially interesting to me for the authors that I had not read before.

"A Lesson in Crime" by G.D.H and M. Cole

The first story is a clever inverted mystery, which I always enjoy. Some other reviewers noted that this was a lesser story in the book, and maybe that was because the reader already knows who did the crime. The crime takes place on a train and the victim is a best-selling author.

"Trent and the Ministering Angel" by E.C. Bentley

E.C. Bentley is best known (to me at least) as the author of Trent's Last Case (which I have not yet read). Philip Trent, amateur detective, is featured in this story, and he solves a mystery for a lawyer who has suspicions related to his client's death and his will. This was a fine story, including both a rock garden and the dead man's library.

"A Slice of Bad Luck" by Nicholas Blake

I enjoyed this mostly because the main character is Nigel Strangeways, who featured in sixteen books by Blake. Strangeways solves a baffling puzzle of the death of an author at a meeting of the Assassins, a club similar to the real-life Detection Club. Nicholas Blake is the pseudonym used by the poet Cecil Day-Lewis. 

"The Strange Case of the Megatherium Thefts" by S.C. Roberts

S.C. Roberts was entirely new to me. He was a noted Sherlockian and a president of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London. This story is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and the first one I have ever read. 

A member of the Megatherium club brings a problem to Holmes. A large number of  books in the circulating library of the Megatherium Club have disappeared and assumed to have been stolen. This was my least favorite story of the ones I have read, but it fits the requirements of this anthology perfectly, as it centers on books and a library.

"Malice Domestic" by Phillip MacDonald

This one centers on an author, not a best-selling author but his books are critically acclaimed, who begins having serious digestive problems, always after eating at home with his wife. I thought the ending was a bit obvious but nevertheless, it was a good picture of a marital relationship suffering difficulties. Very well written. I am motivated to read something by this author, either a novel or more short stories.

"A Savage Game" by A.A. Milne

The author of the Winnie the Pooh books wrote one detective novel, The Red House Mystery, which I enjoyed very much. This short story was published in The Evening Standard Detective Book in 1950. 

So far this is my favorite story from this book, and a very clever one. A mystery author bets his policeman friend that any creative writer could come up with the solution to a crime because all one has to do is invent a creative story to fit the facts. So the Chief Constable, Colonel Saxe, challenges him to do just that, supplying the puzzling details about the latest murder in a small town in his district. A brief story at only 10 pages, but very entertaining.

I am including a list of the titles and authors so you can see if any of the others interest you.

  • "A Lesson in Crime" by G.D.H and M. Cole
  • "Trent and the Ministering Angel" by E.C. Bentley
  • "A Slice of Bad Luck" by Nicholas Blake
  • "The Strange Case of the Megatherium Thefts" by S.C. Roberts
  • "Malice Domestic" by Phillip MacDonald
  • "A Savage Game" by A.A. Milne
  • "The Clue in the Book" by Julian Symons
  • "The Manuscript" by Gladys Mitchell
  • "A Man and his Mother-in-Law" by Roy Vickers
  • "Grey’s Ghost" by Michael Innes
  • "Dear Mr. Editor…" by Christianna Brand 
  • "Murder in Advance" by Marjorie Bremner
  • "A Question of Character" by Victor Canning
  • "The Book of Honour" by John Creasey
  • "We Know You’re Busy Writing…" by Edmund Crispin
  • "Chapter and Verse" by Ngaio Marsh

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Short Story Wednesday: stories from Damn Near Dead

A couple of days ago, I read a few stories from Damn Near Dead: An Anthology of Geezer Noir, edited by Dwayne Swierczynski, published by Busted Flush Press. The book was published in 2006, and all of the stories were first published in this anthology.

Each story is preceded by a short paragraph about the author, what he has written and other interesting facts. The stories also have an afterword from the author, from one paragraph to several, talking about the story and the author's motivation for writing it.

The stories are arranged in sections and the order is by birth year of the author. Thus the first section is made up of six authors born between 1970 and 1979. And the last section, which I read, was four stories by authors born between 1938 and 1947. 

The stories I read are:

  • "Encore" by Milton T. Burton (b. 1947)
  • "Cranked" by Bill Crider (b. 1941)
  • "The Deadsters" by Robert Ward (b. 1945)
  • "Just Friends" by John Harvey (b. 1938)

My favorite story in that group was "Cranked" by Bill Crider. It was fairly short, about 10 pages in length in this edition.

The story is about an elderly man who escapes from a nursing home. He leaves with only $21 and he takes his daughter's car. Unfortunately the car is on empty so he has to go to a nearby truck stop for gas, and ends up getting involved with a woman who just walked out of a meth house, as it was blown up, and two men who attempt to rob the truck stop. It was a great story; I enjoyed the humor, and the ending was perfect. The story was nominated for the Edgar and Anthony awards and won the Derringer Award.

In the Afterword for this story, Crider explains that it was a follow-up to a previous story, titled "Raining Willie." I found a copy of that story but I have not read it yet.

I also liked the stories by Milton T. Burton and John Harvey. However, the story by Robert Ward did not appeal to me at all; it leaned very close to horror. It was clever but much too gross and macabre for me.

Back in 2021, I reviewed some stories from Damn Near Dead 2, edited by Bill Crider and published by Busted Flush Press in 2010. 

Monday, February 27, 2023

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Spy Fiction Authors


Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. This week's topic is a Genre Freebie (pick any genre and build a list for that genre). 

I picked espionage fiction and I am listing my favorite authors in the genre. I limited the list to eight authors. The first two authors are my top two spy fiction authors but beyond that it is hard to decide and the order could change at any time. 

The number of books by the author's name is the number of books that I have read by them.

Charles McCarry (10 books)

I discovered the spy novels of Charles McCarry in 2009 and read them all in a few months (including the two political thrillers that are only peripherally related). Most of the novels written by Charles McCarry are about Paul Christopher, an intelligence agent for the CIA (called "the Outfit" in his books). Some of them go back and forth between events around the World War II years and the 1960's, exploring Christopher's youth and family history. Those nine books were written between 1971 and 2007. McCarry also published The Shanghai Factor in 2013 and The Mulberry Bush in 2015.

Len Deighton (16 books)

Deighton has written two spy fiction series. My favorite is the Bernard Samson series. I have read all nine books in that series, plus Winter, a historical novel which features characters from the Samson series. Deighton is probably best known for his Nameless Spy series (also known as the Harry Palmer series, because of the film adaptations). I have read four of those and I like them, but they are not my favorites of his books. And the great thing about him is I still have at least ten books of his to read.

Anthony Price (5 books)

Anthony Price only wrote 19 novels, all about David Audley, a British spy. I love this kind of spy fiction, which TV Tropes describes as the Stale Beer flavor: more realistic, not romanticizing the subject, grittier. The focus in these books is on characterization and intellect, not action, although there is some of that present. Most of the books in this series have historical events infused into a present day story. In Other Paths to Glory it is World War I and the battlefields of the Somme. In Colonel Butler's Wolf, the site of the story is Hadrian's Wall.

Mick Herron (9 books)

Mick Herron is best known for the Slough House series about MI5 spies who have been demoted due to some disgrace or screw up in their jobs, and are now working under Jackson Lamb. The first book was Slow Horses. I have read 7 books in that series, and the stories get better and better. I still have the last two books in that series to read, plus a stand alone book (set in the same universe as Slough House). And some novellas that are related to the series.

Olen Steinhauer (11 books)

Olen Steinhauer has written twelve full-length novels and I have read all but one of them. His first five novels were historical novels (the Yalta Boulevard series set in a fictional Eastern bloc country) and not strictly spy fiction but there were some espionage elements. After that he began the Milo Weaver series. Weaver is in the CIA; in the first book he is in the "Tourist" division, a group that does dirty work for the CIA. He also wrote a couple of very good standalone novels.

John le Carré (8 books)

I could not do a list like this and not include John le Carré. I don't know exactly how many novels he has written, somewhere between 25 and 30? I have only read 8 of his books, and most of the ones I read featured George Smiley, his best-known character. However, my favorite book by le Carré is A Perfect Spy, about a British spy assigned to an important post in Vienna who disappears after he gets a call that his father has died. It is around 600 pages long and I loved every page of it. John le Carré writes eloquently; he develops his characters bit by bit and pulls me into the story. 

Charles Cumming (5 books)

Charles Cumming has been publishing spy fiction novels since 2001 but his books are relatively new to me. I have only read five of the eleven books he has published. The books I have read and enjoyed are A Spy by Nature (Alec Milius #1 and his first novel), A Foreign Country (Thomas Kell #1), A Colder War (another Thomas Kell book), and Box 88, the beginning of a new series. Box 88 features Lachlan Kite, an agent for a covert spy agency. Kite is abducted, possibly by terrorists, after leaving the funeral of an old friend from boarding school. It turns out that the abduction is related to an event in the late 1980s when Lachlan was just out of boarding school, visiting his friend in France. At that time Lachlan began spying for the Box 88 group, and there are flashbacks to his introduction to the craft of spying. It was an excellent book.

Dan Fesperman (5 books)

I debated whether I should include Dan Fesperman or not. He has written thirteen books, but I am not sure how many of them are spy fiction. I have read several of his books which are combinations of spy fiction and adventure. Examples are The Small Boat of Great Sorrows (set in Bosnia, 1998) and The Arms Maker of Berlin (two time lines, one in 2009, the other in World War II). His most recent series is definitely spy fiction; both Safe Houses and The Cover Wife feature female CIA agents in Germany. And I was very favorable impressed by those books. 


These are not the only authors of espionage fiction that I enjoy, but for many of the authors I have only read one book or their focus is on other types of fiction.

I would love to hear from anyone who has opinions about these authors or suggestions for other authors I should try.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Bullet Train: Kotaro Isaka



When the story opens, all we know is that Yuichi Kimura is boarding the Bullet train at Tokyo station to seek revenge on a person called the Prince, who is responsible for his young son's fall from a building, which put the boy in a coma. The Prince turns out to be a teenager, around 14 years old. Initially it is hard to take in this situation, but it is soon clear that the Prince is truly a psychopath, and enjoys toying with people's lives and their emotions.

Also on board are the deadly duo Tangerine and Lemon. Their goal is returning two things to a major crime lord, Minegishi: his son, who had been kidnapped, and a suitcase full of money. Nanao, also known as Ladybug, is an unlucky and self-deprecating criminal. His assignment is to steal the suitcase full of money and get off the train as soon as possible. He is guided in his mission by Maria, who is not on the train but keeps in touch by cell phone. 

Each of the men is on the train with their own agenda, but through a series of mishaps and setbacks, their fates become intertwined. 

Why did I want to read this book? 

First, we watched the film version of the book, and enjoyed it, so both my husband and I were interested in reading the book. Plus, I like stories set on a train, and this one takes place almost entirely on the Bullet train that travels from Tokyo to Morioka. On top of that, the book fits the Japanese Literature Challenge that I am participating in. 

My Thoughts:

I liked this book a lot. It is 415 pages of fast action, more a thriller than a mystery. The novel is broken up into short chapters, each focusing on a particular character and the story hops from character to character. It takes a while to figure out what is going on. At times it was hard to follow the various characters and the timeline. Early on I noticed that one chapter would tell of an event from a particular character's point of view, then a later chapter would describe another character's experience of the same event. In some cases the chapter might start with "now we will rewind to" an earlier point. The point of view would jump from Lemon to Nanao to Kimura to Tangerine  and then to the Prince, etc.  

There are some really creepy characters in this book; for instance, the Prince, who is the youngest of the bunch but also the most ruthless. But for the most part, these characters are likable and just trying to keep themselves out of trouble. So, if you can forget their backgrounds, this is a fun book to read.

The novel is written in present tense, and that worked fine for me in this case. I used to avoid books with that style of writing, but now it is getting where I hardly notice it (sometimes).

The film:

I enjoyed the film and want to watch it again now. Brad Pitt is the star, playing Ladybug. The plot of the adaptation and the book are not identical and there are definite differences in the motivation and portrayal of various characters. The characters in the book have much more depth that in the film, which is usually the advantage of book over film for me. The film and the book go in different directions, but I liked the ending for both.


Publisher:   Overlook Press, 2022 (orig. publ. 2010)
Length:       415 pages
Format:      Trade Paper
Translator:  Sam Malissa
Setting:      Japan
Genre:       Thriller
Source:      Purchased in January 2023.

Monday, February 20, 2023

Reading Summary for January 2023


Looking back on my reading in January, it was a pretty good month. I was glad I pushed myself to finish Anna Karenina. As with some other longer classics I have read, once I got past the halfway mark it got better. Reading the biography of the Mitford sisters, The Six, got me started on a quest to find more books about that family. I read my first graphic novel for the year (a manga!), and I read some very good crime fiction. 

Nonfiction / Biography

The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters (2015) by Laura Thompson

The Mitford family was in the news a lot in the late 1930s and during World War II primarily because of the behavior of Diana, who married Oswald Mosley, and Unity, who was a big fan of Hitler. The book concentrated on the six sisters, but spent more time on Nancy, Diana, and Unity. I am hungry for more information about the family, so I am now reading The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell. My review of The Six is here.

Graphic novel

A Man and His Cat, Vol. 1 (2018) by Umi Sakurai (Writer and Artist)

This is a short graphic novel about a widower who lives alone and decides to get a cat for the first time. The story is mostly about him learning to live with and take care of a cat, and it is very sweet. This is a manga and I had to get used to reading the story from back to front and from right to left on the page. I have read volume 2 in the series now, and will be reading more.

Fiction / Classic

Anna Karenina (1878) by Leo Tolstoy

After owning this book for twelve years, I finally read it and I am glad I did. I learned a lot about life in Russia when it was written. But I found a large part of it depressing to read. My review is here.

Crime Fiction

The Graveyard Position (2005) by Robert Barnard

Barnard is one of my favorite authors. He wrote about 50 novels between 1974 and 2012. Some were series books but a large number of his mysteries were standalones. The standalone books have the best plots and subtle humor, but I have read and enjoyed most of his series books. This one is about a man who returns from abroad to Leeds, England after his aunt dies, to the dismay of the rest of the family, who thought he was dead. He will inherit most of his aunt's estate, once he can provide proof of his identity. Some long hidden secrets about the family are uncovered along the way.

The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling (1979) by Lawrence Block

This is the third book in the series starring Bernie Rhodenbarr, who makes his living as a burglar. In this book, he has purchased an antiquarian bookstore, and his lesbian friend Caroline, a dog groomer, is introduced. Bernie is hired to steal a very rare book, and in the process gets involved in another crime. I liked the first two books but I think this one was much better. I like the characters and the writing and will read more books as I locate them.

A Midsummer's Equation (2011) by Keigo Higashino

This book is the 6th book in the "Detective Galileo" series but only the third book translated into English. I like the series very much, and each book is a bit different.  My review is here.

The Sign of Four (1890) by Arthur Conan Doyle

I have been a fan of mystery novels since my teens, but I did not read anything in the Sherlock Holmes series until the last few years. This was the second of the novels that I have read, and I was surprised to find that the novels are a combination of puzzle mystery and exotic adventure. My review is here.

Currently reading

I am reading The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell and Fender Benders by Bill Fitzhugh, a darkly humorous mystery about the country music scene in Nashville.

Status of challenges

  • Both the crime fiction book by Keigo Kigashino and the two manga were read for the Japanese Literature Challenge. And I recently read Bullet Train by Kōtarō Isaka.
  • Several of the books I read in January also fit categories for my Bingo Reading Challenge.
  • Six of the books I read in February count for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge.

The images at the top and bottom of the post were taken on a recent visit to the Woodland Loop at the Natural History Museum, in the Mission Canyon area. It has been years since we walked in this area. Another lovely walk.

My husband took the photos. Click on the images for the best viewing quality.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Anna Karenina: Leo Tolstoy

I found it difficult to write more than a superficial review of this book without revealing some of the plot. If you have not read this book, and don't want to know much about the plot, I would pass on this review until you have read it. I knew little of the overall plot before I started reading the book, but I did know the ending. That did not spoil the book for me, but I would have preferred to go into the book with no knowledge of the story at all.

These are the major characters:

Anna Karenina, née Princess Oblonsky, is the wife of Alexei Karenin, who is 20 years older than she is. She is the sister of Prince Stepan (Stiva) Arkadyevich Oblonsky.

Princess Ekaterina (Kitty) Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya is the sister of Princess Darya (Dolly) Alexandrovna Oblonskaya, married to Prince Stepan.

Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky, a cavalry officer.

Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin, a wealthy landowner. 

The story centers around Kitty and Levin and Anna. 

Anna is not happy in her life as the wife of a Petersburg government official but she does enjoy the social life and the things she can afford as the wife of a wealthy man. They have a young son that she adores.

Anna visits Moscow at her brother Stiva's request. His wife Dolly has discovered that he has a mistress, and is threatening to leave him. They have five children, and he wants her to stay married to him. Anna's goal is to talk Dolly into staying.

While in Moscow, Anna goes to a ball that Kitty and Count Vronsky also attend. Kitty is very young, and she expects Vronsky to propose marriage at the ball. However, Vronsky dances with Anna and they are very attracted to each other. When Vronsky does not propose, Kitty is humiliated. Vronsky and Anna get involved and soon are having an affair. 

Levin is a family friend of Stiva and Dolly, a wealthy landowner, and in love with Kitty. He had proposed to Kitty earlier, but was rejected. His life is more simple than the other characters who are involved in society in Moscow or Petersburg. He must spend time running his farm, and he takes his responsibilities there seriously.

Obviously there is much more to the story and the tale unfolds in over 800 pages.

My thoughts:

When I finally decided to read Anna Karenina, I had had my copy at least 12 years. It was time to make a decision to read or not read. I was put off by the length and my opinion that it would be a depressing book, but it was on my Classics List. The book was not as difficult a read as I expected, but at least half of the story was depressing. And it took me four months to read it.

I had difficulty reading this book mainly because of Anna's plight. She brings her problems upon herself, but she is in the unfair position of not being able to divorce her husband and still have some rights to her son. She, like other women at the time, had very little control over her life. 

On the other hand, I enjoyed reading about Levin, his trials and tribulations, and his propensity for evaluating his life and that of others. He was a good man and a hard worker. I liked that he and Kitty do find their way to each other and enjoy their life together. Levin is surprised to find that marriage is not always idyllic, but together they learn how to deal with their differences. There are portions of Levin's story that are drawn out and overly long, but those parts also reveal a lot about life in Russia in the 1800s.

Anna Karenina is good book, deserving of the designation as a classic, and I am glad I read it. I learned a lot about life in Russia when it was written.  My edition had footnotes and explanations; for instance, there was a note explaining the laws that governed divorce and the rights of women at the time. I liked the Levin / Kitty plot but I had to mostly force my way through Anna's story. 

At times I had problems with the Russian names. Some of them were very similar (both Vronsky and Anna's husband are often referred to as Alexei, which was very confusing) and the same person was referred to at various time by their real name or nicknames.  


Publisher: Penguin Classics, 2004 (orig. pub. 1878)
Length:  838 pages
Format: Trade paperback
Setting:  Russia
Genre:   Fiction, Classic
Source:  On my shelves for many years.
Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Short Story Wednesday: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume 2

I have just started reading The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg: Volume 2: The Secret Sharer, first published in 1993.

I have read books or short stories by Robert Silverberg in the past, probably in my early twenties and probably mostly short stories. I know he has a very good reputation as a writer of science fiction and has written a lot of books. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America made him its 21st SFWA Grand Master in 2005.

This collection has a very good Introduction by Robert Silverberg, written in 1990. He discusses how he writes his short stories, and also talks about writing novels vs. short stories. It also has an excellent paragraph about novellas and where they fit between short stories and full-length novels. Of the eleven stories in this collection, two are novella length: "The Secret Sharer" and "We Are For the Dark." 

The only story I have read so far from this book is "The Pardoner's Tale." It is a longish story, 25 pages in this edition. The protagonist is a Hacker, living in the US in a future where aliens, called the Entities, have taken over the world. They use humans as slave labor and control them through computer implants that connect all humans to their computers. 

Only Hackers can fool the computer and get around the country with relative ease. Hacker's support themselves by selling "pardons" to other humans; they alter that person's profile in the main computer to give them an easier work assignment or save them from medical experimentation. Hacker's have to be careful not to do too many pardons and sometimes deliberately "fudge" them up to cover their tracks. So Pardoners don't have a very good reputation. People have to be desperate to use them.

This was an excellent story, told in first person from the Hacker's point of view. I liked the writing and the story held my interest. It whetted my appetite for more writing by Silverberg, either short stories or novels.

There was another element in this story that I enjoyed. The setting was the Los Angeles basin and there were a number of references to other places along the coast, including Santa Barbara and San Francisco. 

An interesting fact: Of the stories in this book, three of them were first published in Playboy magazine, and "The Pardoner's Tale" was one of those. It was first published in 1987.

Each story has a separate introductory paragraph or two by Silverberg, and for "The Pardoner's Tale" he talked about working with Playboy's fiction editor, Alice K. Turner, and changes she had suggested to stories he had submitted. Also very interesting.

If anyone has any favorite novels or story collections by Silverberg, please let me know.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

My Sign-up for Book Bingo 2023


I am joining in on Book Bingo 2023 at Unruly Reader. I did this challenge last year (and will soon do a post listing all the books I read that fit that challenge). This year’s theme is School. The challenge runs from January 1, 2023 to December 31, 2023.

Here is the card with the categories:

Some of the categories are obvious, for example: 

  • MODERN LIBRARY TOP 100 = A book from the Modern Library Top 100 list, or from their Fiction or Nonfiction Top 100 Lists.

Other categories are not so obvious, and some can be interpreted loosely:

  • FIRE DRILL = A book about preparation, survival, or passion. Or a book that ignites something within you. Or, of course, a book about FIRE.
  • HOMEWORK = A book or article that enhances and deepens your knowledge.

I think I will naturally end up reading some books that fit the categories (I have already read four), and I could have fun finding books for other categories. But I am fairly sure I won't be filling them all in. I have made sure that there are books I want to read for at least one column and one row on the bingo card. 

The sign-up post at Unruly Reader, titled Introducing Book Bingo 2023, provides definitions for each category and instructions on How to Play.

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Short Story Wednesday: Stories by Parnell Hall

My husband is a fan of the Stanley Hastings series by Parnell Hall, and is also reading the Steve Winslow series, which Hall wrote under the pseudonym of J.P. Hailey. I have also read a couple of Stanley Hastings books, so I decided to try some of his short stories. As far as I can tell, they are all only available in print in various anthologies, but some are available as Kindle short stories. These are mystery short stories where the emphasis is on humor and I enjoyed reading them. 

I started out with "Lethal Luncheon," a Puzzle Lady story. I read this story to see if I might want to read some of the Puzzle Lady mysteries by Hall. I have always liked crossword puzzles; my father did them also and he sent me a crossword puzzle from the newspaper every week when I was a freshman in college. 

Cora Felton, the main character, has a syndicated crossword puzzle column, but only she and her niece know that she really has nothing to do with creating the puzzles. 

In "Lethal Luncheon," Cora is going to a charity luncheon where she will give a talk on crossword puzzles. She is not happy about this since she is a fraud and knows nothing about crossword puzzles. Fortunately for Cora, a guest at the luncheon dies before she has to give her speech, and she is able to help the police with the crime.

The story was fun. At the beginning, I thought she was too crotchety and a pain in the ass. She smokes, which also bothered me a bit at first and I don't know why. But soon I saw that she was funny and quirky and I will give the first Puzzle Lady novel a try sometime soon.

I then tried stories from Hall's other two series.

"Deal Me In" is a Stanley Hastings story. Stanley is an investigator working for a negligence attorney, Richard Rosenberg. Rosenberg is part of a group who play poker together once a month. On this particular night, one of the players dies during a poker hand. Stanley is called in to the scene of the crime by his boss so that he can be included when all the members are interviewed by the police. The players in the game are a "cross section of Manhattan's elite who had been gambling together over twenty years." The police investigator is Sergeant McAullif, who has worked on cases with Stanley before. After much discussion, Stanley is allowed to sit in on the interviews, and later helps to solve the case.

In "The Witness Cat," Steve Winslow is a court-appointed lawyer for an older man accused of murdering his rich employer. The defendant was the caretaker of the dead man's estate, and the primary witness against him is the dead man's nephew. Fortunately the dead man's cat helps him clear his defendant of the charge.

This story reminded me a lot of the cases on the original Perry Mason TV series. And that reminded me that I had read that Parnell wanted to continue the Perry Mason series. 

From the Parnell Hall website:

My Steve Winslow series came from a lifetime of reading Perry Mason. Indeed, The Anonymous Client, begun shortly after Erle Stanley Gardner died, was begun as a Perry Mason novel and completed as a Steve Winslow novel after Gardner’s widow refused to give up the rights.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters


This biography by Laura Thompson tells about the lives of the Mitford family with a primary focus on the six daughters. The parents were David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale and his wife Sidney, née Bowles. The daughters were Nancy (b. 1904), Pam (b. 1907), Diana (b. 1910), Unity (b. 1914), Jessica (b. 1917), and Deborah (b. 1920). Tom, the only son, was born in 1909, between Pam and Diana. 

I don't know when I became aware of the Mitford girls, but it was since I started blogging. See this post on the Mitford sisters at Clothes in Books, where Moira also mentions this book. But even when I started the book I did not know much more than that Nancy was an author, Diana married Oswald Mosley, and Unity was obsessed with Hitler.

I was pulled in two directions while reading this book. Laura Thompson's writing is very entertaining and I learned a lot from the book. But towards the end I thought that something was missing and I was not satisfied. 

I will start with the good. To begin with, it was a pleasure reading this book. The first part was fairly straightforward and I was glad the author began with the background of the parents and covered the older children's childhood and David's part in World War I. I definitely came away from the book knowing much more about the Mitfords than I knew before, and also picked up more about events and attitudes in the UK before and during World War II. I had been aware that there was support for Germany and Hitler in that country prior to the war, but did not realize quite how much. 

But in later parts of the book, I noticed Laura Thompson included too much of her own opinions and biases towards the sisters, which affected her coverage of the family.  She pulled a lot from Nancy's novels, which were based on the family but not a true picture of what actually happened. The impression I got from reading this biography were that all of Nancy's novels were based on members of the family, but I am not sure if that is true. She exaggerated and embellished a lot in the fictional portrayals of members of the family. Nancy's novels were referred to so frequently that sometimes it was not clear whether Thompson was writing about the real person or the depiction of that person in a novel. 

A lot of the book is more about the myths about the Mitfords that sprang from Nancy's fiction books based on the family. Since I was looking for facts, that did not work well for me. I suspect that the enjoyment of this book could depend on how much familiarity the reader already has with the Mitfords and that part of history. 

I felt like Laura Thompson's biography emphasized Nancy, Diana, and Unity and did not include much about Pam, Jessica, or Deborah. She also bounced around a lot between the sisters and went back and forth in time which got very confusing. 

To summarize, Laura Thompson's writing is very readable and entertaining, but I felt I missed a lot of the story. I wanted more. I liked this book as much for what I learned about events and behavior in the UK leading up to and during the war as for the story of the sisters. 

I started reading The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell a few days after I finished The Six. I wanted to see how that biographer approached the story, whether it has more information than the other book, and how the two differed in their take on the sisters. That book was first published in 2001, 14 years earlier than Thompson's biography, and is 200 pages longer.


Publisher:   Picador, 2017 (orig. publ. 2015)
Length:       388 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      UK
Genre:       Nonfiction, Biography
Source:      Purchased in 2022.