Seasonal Work – Short But Not Sweet

I am usually not a fan of short stories, unless they are by Saki or O’Henry, but my tastes have changed during the neverending pandemic. Laura Lippman’s collection of sassy and wry short stories in Seasonal Work has small bites of reality mixed with humor, and sometimes horror. Just right for the impatient cynic who needs a bit of time being in somebody else’s world – but only for a short time. Lippman notes her stories were written between 2007 and 2019 but her Baltimore settings are often much earlier – before the world turned upside down with the pandemic but also before awareness of language and ideas became more carefully adjudicated.

Lippman offers a peek into the lives of children, a grifter stepfather, a woman in her prime, a book stealer, a con artist, victims who get revenge, a ghost who finally escapes into the light, and more.

One of my favorites is “The Everyday Wife” with references to watching the Watergate trial and The NewlyWed game on TV in the seventies. Judith, the young bored wife, has a mother who calls her every morning to check in. Judith walks the neighborhood and soon discovers its secrets with an exciting event leading to Judith working for NSA. I have a friend who worked for NSA and her response was close to Judith’s when asked what she did: “I can’t tell you…”

Having recently seen the movie “Enola Holmes” about Sherlock’s younger sister who yearns to be a detective like her brother, I had high expectations for eleven year old Sheila Locke-Holmes in Lippman’s collection. With “Harriet the Spy” as her tutor, Sheila snoops but accidentally uncovers a piece of her father’s past in her mother’s jewelry box. The ending has a poignant lesson in growing up.

The collection is divided into four sections, with three stories in each section. The last section has “Slow Burner,” about a cheating husband, a suspicious wife, and an extra cell phone. The last story, “Just one More,” the only story updated to today, is set during the pandemic. Amazing what people will do to stay entertained during lockdown.

All the stories feature strong women and follow the O’Henry model of ending with a surprise but more in keeping with Edgar Allan Poe. In some cases, you will know it is coming, but others are unexpected.

A great colllection of short stories. I thought I might just read one and come back later, but I found myself looking forward to the next and the next, until I’d read them all. But, beware, if you are looking for a cozy mystery, Lippman does not go there. Revenge and murder are more her style.

One of my favorite books by Laura Lippman is “Sunburn” – here’s my review from when it was first published in 2018:

In Sunburn, Lippman keeps the reader off balance, acknowledging as the story opens that Polly Costello has killed her abusive husband and abandoned her two girls, one disabled with cerebral palsy. Nevertheless, Polly seems to be a sympathetic character – her life sentence is pardoned by the governor, and she wins an insurance settlement against the hospital where her disabled daughter was born. The handsome private detective, hired by a crooked insurance salesman for his share of the money, falls in love with her. Will he turn her in or run away with her? Lippman’s clever twists are not that simple, and she maintains the suspense – juggling the good guys and bad guys, and flipping intentions back and forth with another murder in the middle of it all. It’s fun to read, and the ending is a satisfying surprise I did not predict.

My Thrilling List

Book titles catch my eye but I really don’t have a list. I write them on little slips of paper, the backs of envelopes, at the bottom of the plumber’s list, on the paint swatches – all in a pile I keep planning to organize.

All night thrillers seem to attract me the most lately, vicariously providing satisfaction from feeling powerless over the verbal abuse by the plumber’s secretary, along with false promises and purposeful delays on a seemingly endless renovation.

A few books lately have offered some respite:

Megan Miranda’s Such A Quiet Place had the same twisting switchbacks as her earlier book The Last House Guest. This story has the neighborhood in a small college town disrupted by murder and the return of the murderer, when she is released early from prison. Speculation, gossip, and manipulative friendships twist the plot, and the idea of being a good neighbor gets a makeover.

The Turnout by Megan Abbott sets the scene in a small, old ballet studio needing a renovation after a fire caused by a space heater. With my recent experiences with a renovation, I could relate to some of the lines: “He has to finish that renovation sometime” and “Aren’t there some states, she’d heard Detective Mendoza joke to Walters, where murdering your contractor is a misdemeanor?” A creepy thriller with a twisting plot. You may never think of the Nutcracker the same again.

Finally, The 22 Murders of Madison May by Max Barry starts as a routine police procedural but quickly morphs into a strange tale of a serial killer with touches of sci-fi. This page turner follows a journalist investigating the murder of a young attractive real estate agent. Her chase leads her through time and space into parallel universes as the reporter discovers she’s not the only one who’s in pursuit of the murderer, who keeps killing the same woman in different versions of her life. The time travel keeps the pace fast, and the ending may have you wondering which version of the good life you are living. Lots of fun.

What books offer you an escape?

The Disappearing Act

The title of Catherine Steadman’s The Disappearing Act appealed to me. Like Maria Semple’s “Bernadette,” sometimes disappearing seems promising. But Steadman is the author of the thriller “Something in the Water,” soon to be made into a Reese Witherspoon movie, so I expected a page-turning drama. The Disappearing Act focuses on a story closer to the author’s alter ego as an actress in London, and the “gaslighting” will have you wondering who the villain really is.

After Mia’s live-in boyfriend surreptitiously dumps her, she leaves from London to Hollywood for a series of auditions, following her successful portrayal of Jane Eyre and her nomination for the prestigious BAFTA award. In the waiting room of one of these auditions she meets Emily, another actor, and the plot thickens.

Returning from putting money into the meter for Emily’s car, Mia finds Emily has left, without her wallet and car keys, and she is determined to get them back to her. A series of plot twists ensue, with the punctuation of a new love interest, a handsome and wealthy producer who meets her when she is plugging the meter. After a series of unsettling incidents – someone breaks into her apartment, her car is mysteriously sabotaged, threatening notes appear – Mia is not sure who to trust. Steadman keeps the plot moving in different directions, until finally resolving the obvious.

The Disappearing Act is a fun and quick read – just the kind of story to distract and entertain.

What I’m Reading Now:

I almost forgot I ordered the two books from Libby, the library’s email guru, but they both appeared together and both due in less than 21 days. I better get reading:

The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan and The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

Any suggestions on which to start first?

The Plot

While some of us were wallowing in our discontent in 2020, Jean Hanff Korelitz was writing another bestseller. If you enjoyed the thrill of “The Undoing,” the HBO series based on her book “You Should Have Known,” The Plot will be no less satisfying. Perhaps you’ll figure out the true villain before the end, but getting there will still have you reeling.

Looking for his next book, after having two mediocre tomes published, Jacob Bonner hits the jackpot with a story told him by a student in his creative writing workshop. When he discovers Evan Parker has died of an overdose without finishing his book, Jacob seizes the opportunity to appropriate Evan’s narrative and write it himself. The book “Crib” is an instant success, with a movie directed by Spielberg in the offing.

While on his book tour, he has two life-changing occurrences: he meets Anna, his future wife, and he receives the first of a series of threats accusing him of plagiarism. Korelitz then begins to insert excerpts from the popular “Crib” as she continues with Jacob’s successful yet now harried life as a writer. The conceit is mesmerizing and clearly leads the reader into a series of complicated but satisfying plot twists.

As Jacob tries to confront the author of the threats to reveal his plot source, he finds himself in the middle of a family saga and another murder. Eventually, he seems to solve the mystery, but Korelitz has one last reveal at the end of her story, and it’s a good one.

Elizabeth Egan in her review for the New York Time says:

“It keeps you guessing and wondering, and also keeps you thinking: about ambition, fame and the nature of intellectual property (the analog kind). Are there a finite number of stories? Is there a statute of limitations on ownership of unused ideas? These weighty questions mingle with a love story, a mystery and a striver’s journey — three of the most satisfying flavors of fiction out there.

Jake Bonner’s insecurity, vulnerability and fear are familiar to those of us who have faced a blank screen, wondering how or whether we’ll be able to scramble letters into a story. Korelitz takes these creative hindrances and turns them into entertainment. Not only does she make it look easy, she keeps us guessing until the very end.”

A page-turner I could not put down, The Plot. Read and enjoy – just don’t give away the ending.

Gothic Thrillers: The Guest List and The Sea of Lost Girls

For now, I am content with easy mysteries and psychological thrillers; I just finished reading The Guest List by Lucy Foley and The Sea of Lost Girls by Carol Goodman.  Both reminded me of Lianne Moriarty’s Big Little Lies with a cast of women betrayed by a male villain, who satisfyingly  gets his at the end – with a surprise twist.

The Sea of Lost Girls

Goodman’s tales are old friends; I’ve read The Lake of Dead Languages (2001) through to The Widow’s House (2017).  The Sea of Lost Girls has her usual Gothic flavor, set in an academic setting, this time in an old boarding school in Maine, with a haunting past of dead girls and ghosts.  Tess, the heroine and former student, returns as a teacher with a past.  A young girl is murdered near the beach with suspects ranging from the heroine’s son to her former lover and her husband.  Goodman weaves the psychological thriller around the lives of past abuses and present day secrets.  A fun and quick read.

The Guest List

Foley’s The Guest List has a wedding fueling its thrills and a remote Irish island provides the chills. The horror on the night of the wedding jolts the opening, and the rest of the story backtracks to lead the reader to the big reveal.

The groom is a handsome TV star, but slowly his chiseled looks take on the aura of a Dorian Gray.  His college buddies confirm his background and lurid past, as they party as the guests from hell.  Five narrators, each marking separate chapters, slowly weave the story to its surprise ending: the wedding planner and owner of the island, the bride, her young half sister and bridesmaid, the best man and old college buddy of the groom, and Hannah, the wife of Charlie, former lover of the bride.  The story evolves slowly, giving the reader time to assimilate the characters and try to guess the victim as well as the murderer, but it was a surprise to me.  Fun and satisfying.