Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Book 3: Corduroy Mansions

Alexander McCall Smith is, undoubtedly, one of my favourite authors. His gentle rambling through the thoughts of his characters never ceases to entertain me. I was first introduced to him when I moved to Zambia, being presented with The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency. It was love at first read: the book captured so much of the essence of Africa, with its sunsets and scenery, its lazy days and lazy people, its hard work to procure a living, its poverty and its wealth. From then on I was addicted.

So it was an utter delight to pick up Corduroy Mansions from the library. Its origin is a daily story printed in The Daily Telegraph, all 100 episodes being collated together for the book. Having already read the 44 Scotland Street series that he produced for The Scotsman I knew the type of tale to expect. The stories centre around the inhabitants of Corduroy Mansions, described as 'crumpled': a slightly run down block of flats in Pimlico (but, after all, it is Pimlico, so not that run down).

There are uncomfortable similarities to the 44 Scotland Street stories - there is a man with a dog, there is a mysterious, lost painting, it ends with a bizarre poem - but nevertheless the characters are fresh and realistic. Undoubtedly my favourite (despite his meagre appearances) is Oedipus Snark 'possibly the first ever nasty Liberal Democrat MP' whose evil permeates the book through his employee, his girlfriend and his mother. Yet my biggest laugh-out-loud moment was with Terence Moongrove and his attempt to recharge his car battery, and subsequent choice of replacement vehicle.

It is an art to write a story every day of about 1000 words which not only follows on from the previous day but also can be read independently. It makes Corduroy Mansions an easy book to pick up and put down but also, as a writer, a fascinating exercise in introducing characters and storylines. Sometimes it is clunky but usually it flows remarkably easily.

I realise that AMS has produced a second series of stories for the newspaper, some of which I read online at the time, but I look forward to catching up on the whole family of characters when published together in a book. It is light, easy reading, and if you enjoy AMS's philosophical wandering through life you cannot be disappointed with this series.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Book 2: Something Fresh by PG Wodehouse

If you stick with me for all my summer book reviews you will discover they are all light reads. I saw PG Wodehouse on the shelf and gave a little sigh of relief. Wodehouse always has an excellent use of the English language and a farcical mix of over-the-top characters.

"Something Fresh" doesn't fail with either. It is the first of the Blandings novels, introducing the slightly demented Lord Emsworth, his wayward son Hon Freddie Threepwood, the Efficient Baxter (the secretary) and the butler, Beach. Of course, Wodehouse is better known for Bertie Wooster and his butler Jeeves, but I thought it would be worth giving other characters a go.

There is a delightful mix-up over the loss (or was it theft?) of a valuable scarab. Realising there is money being rewarded for its recovery various people chase off to Blandings Castle to try to retrieve it. This cannot be done with open honesty but by the most devious means possible, so that no-one knows who they are or what they are really up to. The description of the severely sleep-deprived Baxter believing he is hallucinating in the pub (when we, the reader, really know what he sees and hears to be true) is superb.

Truly Wodehouse is a master of the pompous upper-class character and inevitable farce in stately homes. Clearly it is from a bygone era, and it is hard to imagine what a modern equivalent might be, but on finishing the book I fell asleep drafting my own play for a West End stage: a bedroom farce with unknown guests and unwanted interruptions. Thankfully for the rest of the world, I slept before it became a reality. Even more thankfully, Wodehouse manages it to perfection and is freely available from the library.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Summer reading by Withenay Wanders

Richard and Judy have their list; the TV book club theirs.

I have a random collection taken from the library whilst my children work on their 'Space Hop' Summer Challenge. They are not chosen for their literary merit but usually for being a light read. Or for being at eye-level and with an attractive cover, of course.

So, first off the shelf is The Tea House on Mulberry Street by Sharon Owens.

I liked the sound of this: I like tea shops, as a general rule, and therefore am immediately attracted to the idea of sitting in one, drinking cups of tea and watching the world go by. Furthermore, when I took it off the shelf I read the review form the Irish Independent: "Maeve Binchy meets Joanna Trollope ... gives you a warm glow like a nice cup of tea." Exactly what I needed for a bit of summer reading.

The story is set in Ireland and revolves - unsurprisingly - around a tea shop and the love lives of its owners and regulars. There is a fairly standard mix of unfaithful husbands, affairs with sexy men, long lost loves, never-to-be loves and the aching for a baby marital strife. Everyone wants change but no-one is sure how to get it.

The tempting descriptions of cheesecake and desserts have me salivating from the start. The characters are well-written, introduced slowly from the beginning of the book, with sufficient back-story to give credence. However, I confess I was disappointed with the end. It was delightfully predictable and the author did manage to tie up all the loose ends, though rather handed to me (the reader) on a plate in the final chapter. It would have been nice to have something a little more enigmatic. For example, the story of Clare (loved and lost) probably could have been a book in itself, if the author had wished. Instead it all neatly tied up (oh look! he's just around the corner and currently single ...) and we quickly passed on to another character.

There are certainly interesting ideas in the story and a delightful mix of people to indulge myself with. There are several other books by the same author at the library and I wouldn't dismiss them if I wanted something light to read, but to my mind it was not in the same class as Maeve Binchy.
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