Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Short Story Wednesday: "Birdie" by Lauren Groff


Some serendipitous wandering around on the internet on the weekend led me to discover a new (to me) author that I want to read, and a short story by that author. 

"Birdie" by Lauren Groff

Four women who were friends in their youth come together again – after 20 years – because one of them, Birdie, is in the hospital, dying from cancer. The history of their relationship is revealed gradually and very effectively.

The four women have had very different lives. Sammie still lives in the small town they grew up in, and has a husband and five kids. Birdie was a freelancer, never married, her boyfriend left when she was diagnosed with cancer. Melodie is a real-estate agent in San Luis Obispo, still looking for love, who has had a lot of work done on her face. Most of the story is from Nic's point of view; she is a law professor, divorced, with a young daughter. None of them seem happy or comfortable in their lives. 

I don't know that their age at the time of this meeting is ever stated definitively, but it seems that they must be in their early 40s. They are telling stories about the worst thing they ever did. 

An excerpt:

Then the women were all looking at Nic, so she took a swig of schnapps and steeled herself and said, The worst thing I ever did was, I guess, what happened that summer just after we graduated, right before we all left home. I was babysitting for a couple who lived out on the lake, about six miles north of town. They worked at the opera. He was a set designer and she did costumes.

She was about to go into the whole story—the delicious old winterized camp that was painted a green-black, and its crisp white modern interior, the husband and wife like sleek seals, the toddler she loved like her own child, who slept with his hands curled near his ears—when she saw the other three exchanging looks and repressing their smiles, and that old whip of their judgment snapped out of the darkness of time and stung her. Nic cried out, What? What?

This story definitely benefited from a second read. I was very impressed with it on the first read, the characters seemed so real to me, especially Nic and Birdie. But the second time more I felt it more emotionally. The only tiny quibble I have with the writer's style was that she doesn't use quote marks, which seemed awkward to me, but did not detract from my enjoyment of the story.

A sample of dialog in the story:

There was more air in the hallway, or they could breathe now, and they relaxed a little as they walked. I took a cab here, said Melodie. Me too, said Sammie. Nic sighed internally and said, I rented a car. I’ll drive us to the hotel. In the hospital’s lobby, they stopped to look out the enormous windows into the wildness of wind and snow, and it seemed so astonishingly huge and fearsome, some dark beast roaring at them, that nobody moved until Nic reluctantly said, I’ll go out and get the car and pull it up here for you. Both of the other women said, Great, thanks!

Laurie Groff is the author of four novels and two books of short stories. Her most recent novel is Matrix, which tells Groff's version of the life of Marie de France, a female poet who wrote in the late 1100s through the early 1200s. I don't know if I want to read that book or not, but if anyone has any recommendations related to this author, I would welcome them.

I read the story at The Atlantic online. 

Sunday, March 26, 2023

A Man and His Cat, Vol. 1-3

A Man and His Cat is a Japanese manga series; the writer and artist is Umi Sakurai. This comic started out on Twitter, self-published on Twitter; then it was a webcomic before being published by Square Enix Manga. Since it is a manga, I had to get used to reading the story from back to front and from right to left on the page. I am still working on that. I have now read three volumes in the series.

In the first volume, a widower, Kanda, seeks a cat as a companion, and finds his perfect match at a pet store. The cat is a large exotic shorthair and has been waiting in the pet store for an owner for a year. The man falls in love with his new cat and names him Fukumaru. 

The stories in the first volume are mostly about Kanda learning to live with and take care of a cat. The second volume continues along the same lines, but also 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.  

In the third volume, I had hoped for a bit more about the man's marriage and his children, and that is what I got, just a bit. There is more about his work life, his love of playing the piano, and the people he works with. Some earlier relationships in his life are explored.

Each volume is short with not a lot of text. The stories are very sweet, sometimes a little too sweet, even for me. Many of the short chapters are centered on the cat, and I think it helps a lot if you like cats. I do, so the books work well for me.

I look forward to the next volume. Per Goodreads, there are now 10 books in the series. I plan to read at least one volume a month.

I read these books for the Japanese Literature Challenge hosted at Dolce Bellezza. There are other reviews for Volume 1 at Dolce Bellezza and A Fondness for Reading.

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