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Archive for the ‘Alexander McCall Smith’ Category

0375504419_0Educating Alice by Alice Steinbach – Steinbach, to me, is that well-meaning person who desperately wants you to like them and who is so earnest that you wish you could like but, really, you just spend every encounter wanting to hit them with something blunt. In this second travel memoir (following Without Reservations), Steinbach roams the world and indulges in too much introspection and overly romanticized prose.

9780375724596_custom-2efde7beec18b0b581c86a38388313349857619e-s6-c30The Pursuit of Alice Thrift by Elinor Lipman – a much more likeable Alice, The Pursuit of Alice Thrift is a wonderful comedy about a young, socially-awkward surgical intern in Boston (but of course – this is an Elinor Lipman book) who finds herself being wooed by Ray Russo, who seems very likely to be a conman. But at least he’s a man. It is fabulous and hilarious. Alice is marvellously blunt, Ray is exquisitely slimy, and the two friends Alice makes over the course of the novel – sassy Sylvie and supportive Leo – are friends I would love to have myself. Very, very fun.

The Ladies' ManThe Ladies’ Man by Elinor Lipman – I’ve read almost all of Lipman’s novels now (only My Latest Grievance awaits) and I have to say that this is not one of my favourites. That said, my least favourite Lipman is still better than almost anyone else’s best. Thirty years ago, Adele Dobbin was jilted by her fiancé, Harvey Nash. Suddenly, he shows up on the doorstep of the Boston apartment Adele shares with her two sisters with a belated apology. An inveterate ladies’ man, Harvey (now going by Nash Harvey) attempts to charm a series of women over the course of the book. Though the Dobbin women prove immune to his charms (one of them goes so far as to break a casserole dish over his head when he attempts to hit on her), his arrival does inspire them to look to the romantic lives they have largely ignored. Lipman is as clever and witty as ever, I just think there were too many characters splitting focus here, making for an uneven flow.

forever girlThe Forever Girl by Alexander McCall Smith – In that weird space between not good and not horrifically bad. So…inoffensively bad? There were some good moments but the characters were completely flat, every last one of them.

Spring MagicSpring Magic by D.E. Stevenson – I wish I had more to say about this book. It is pure escapist fantasy, about Frances, a young Cinderella-like woman, who is able to escape from her aunt after their London home is damaged by a bombing during the Second World War. The aunt heads into the country with the expectation that Frances will accompany her. Instead, Frances heads for a fishing village in Scotland to figure out her life and develop some independence. Her stay is enlivened by the arrival in the neighbourhood of a regiment of soldiers – and the officer’s wives. The socializing from then on is reminiscent of the Mrs Tim books, since the military wives prove far more interesting than Frances and her mild romantic problems. It’s a sweet book but not quite as energetic as DES’s best works.

JoieJoie de Vivre by Harriet Welty Rochefort – hands down the best – and most entertaining – book I have read about the French. Having lived in France and been married to a Frenchman for forty years, Rochefort is more than qualified to discuss the good, the bad, and the mysterious elements of French culture and the French psyche. She is humorous and does not over romanticize or demonize – an all too common failing of this sort of book. Very enjoyable.

Waiting on You by Kristan Higgins – Higgins is back on form after her disappointing last book.

It Felt Like a KissIt Felt Like a Kiss by Sarra Manning – despite a title that makes the book sound like it is about domestic abuse, this was actually a rather interesting look at what happens when a young woman’s greatest secret – the identity of her famous father – is leaked to the press by a vengeful ex-boyfriend. The romance was less than convincing but the way Ellie’s life was twisted by the press with complete disregard for the truth was all too disgustingly real.

UnstickyUnsticky by Sarra Manning – A very fluffy premise – what happens to a young woman when she agrees to become the mistress and hostess for an older art dealer – but a surprisingly engaging and interesting book. I really enjoy Manning’s writing and though her books are always long, none of it feels like filler. I did find Grace’s liberal use of “like” wildly irritating, though that thankfully faded over the course of the novel, and was thrown by some of the little details of the scenes set in BC: Vancouver, which has the same climate as London, can hardly be described as the “icy hinterlands of British Columbia.” Also, where on earth did they find a Caribbean nurse in Whistler? But these were minor, minor issues and for the most part I loved the book. I also couldn’t help thinking that Clare Carrington from The New Moon with the Old would approve.

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It is the Thanksgiving long weekend here in Canada and I have been putting it to good use.  Errands have been run, rooms have been cleaned, volunteering hours have been logged, walks have been taken, pies have been baked (and consumed at Sunday’s family dinner), and, most importantly, books have been read.  There was an unintentional theme to my reading this weekend so that even as I was enjoying the stunning weather here in Vancouver, my thoughts were in Scotland keeping company with the characters in my books.

I started with Katherine Wentworth by D.E. Stevenson.  I have officially decided that I am a D.E.S. fan but I find her books vary widely in quality and this one did not impress me.  Published in 1964, it is the story of a young widow (Katherine Wentworth), living in Edinburgh and raising her two young twins and teenage stepson.  I really, really wanted to like this book but whether it was the clumsiness of the first-person perspective or just the dullness of Katherine herself, I could not find it in myself to care about the heroine.  She was nice but, for a book that is written from her perspective, strangely distanced from the reader.  There is a predictable love story between her and the brother of an old school friend that is complicated only by his sister’s bizarre behaviour.  Still, the reader is never in doubt that Katherine will end up with her “solid and sensible” suitor, even though Katherine is remarkably mute about her feelings towards him for most of the book.  The only real tension in the story comes from a decision Simon, Katherine’s stepson, has to make about reconciling with his father’s family and, for that reason, Simon comes across as the only really interesting character as he struggles to figure out where he belongs and what he wants.

On the other hand, I loved Stevenson’s Listening Valley, which I read next.  Growing up in Edinburgh during the 1920s and 1930s, Antonia Melville lived happily in the shadow of her elder sister, Lou.  But when the teenage Lou elopes (with, it must be said, a very nice and quite unobjectionable man), Tonia is left alone and insecure.  She finds happiness and confidence in a marriage to a much older man who adores her but she is left a widow a few years later.  Still only in her early twenties, she is horrified when her husband’s relatives try to bring her under their control and so runs away to an old family house she inherited in the small Scottish Borders’ town of Ryddelton (one of D.E.S.’s favourite settings).  Here, in the house where her great-aunt Antonia had lived, Tonia begins to settle down and create her own life.  She becomes friends with Celia Dunne (of Celia’s House) and with a number of the R.A.F. officers stationed nearby, including one whom she had known as a child in Edinburgh.  The romance is well-handled and satisfying but the real pleasure of the story comes from seeing Antonia grow in confidence.  This begins with her marriage but she really blossoms once she takes over Melville House and realises how well she can manage on her own.  Published in 1944, Listening Valley is recognizably a wartime novel.  Most of the time it is relatively subtle: there is a detailed description of an air raid during Tonia’s time in London and the war becomes even more present once she arrives in Ryddelton and comes to care for the flyers who visit her home.   But there is also the most laughably awful spy I’ve come across in a while, whose dastardly plans are uncovered by Tonia’s vigilant housekeeper/neighbour.  That particular part of the story I could have done without.  Still, it is a lovely, cosy read and a perfect example of why I am drawn to D.E. Stevenson’s work.

I then moved on to Sunshine on Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith , the most recent installment in his never-ending Scotland Street series.  This was a real disappointment.  I felt that he rambled more than usual, at the expense of character development.  Even Bertie, frustrated to still be six when he feels that he has been that age for years and years now (as he has), failed to delight in his usual manner.  Oh well, better luck next time.  That said, I was charmed by the idea of Big Lou becoming an overnight internet sensation after a Danish documentary filmmaker discovers her.

I am quick to recover from disappoint though and  am now half-way through The Proper Place by O. Douglas and loving it.  My reactions to O. Douglas’ books have been all over the place (which you would already know if I’d gotten around to reviewing the ones I’ve read in a timely manner – bad Claire!) but the delight I get from her good books far outweighs my frustration with the less impressive ones – rather like my feelings about D.E. Stevenson, really.  This, the story of Lady Jane Rutherford, her daughter, and her niece, who have to relocate after her husband’s death and the sale of their family home, definitely counts as a good one.  How could I not love a book that has characters who share my own literary tastes?  When, among a small gathering of friends, Nicole Rutherford proposes that everyone share an amusing story or joke, one of the guests won my approval by remembering a piece by A.A. Milne (one, as it happens, that I haven’t yet come across in my reading):

‘But I do remember one thing, Miss Nicole,’ Simon said, ‘one of A.A.M.’s Punch articles on how to dispose of safety-razor blades.  The man had been in the habit of dropping worn-out blades on the floor, and his wife protested that the housemaid cut her fingers and dropped blood on the blue carpet.  ‘Then’ said the husband, ‘we’ll either have to get a red carpet or a blue-blooded housemaid…’ I always think of that when it comes to discarding a razor-blade, and laugh!’

It has been a busy weekend, especially when you consider that I’ve only had a few hours each day to read between all my other activities.  And I still have a few hours of freedom left to enjoy this evening before it is back to work tomorrow – plenty of time to finish off The Proper Place!

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I had such fun reading Unusual Uses for Olive Oil by Alexander McCall Smith, which sees the return of Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld (of The 2 ½ Pillars of Wisdom).  Now, I don’t love all of McCall Smith’s work – I’ve never gotten into The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series and actively dislike The Sunday Philosophy Club series, though I am very fond of his 44 Scotland Street stories – but I adore von Igelfeld.  The German scholar and author of the invaluable Portuguese Irregular Verbs is the perfect meld of pompousness and embarrassment.  His absurd adventures and unyielding social awkwardness make him, to me, the most loveable of all of McCall Smith’s creations.

And von Igelfeld is never more socially awkward than in these episodes: arriving at a dinner party only to discover his suit is riddled with moth holes; distinguishing himself over lunch with the wealthy widow Frau Benz only to make a dismissive comment about a certain car manufacturer at the end, not realising until several days later that her husband was one of those Benzes; engaging in on-going petty disagreements with his odious colleague Professor Unterholzer; and, most wonderfully, leading a student reading trip into the mountains.  Every moment of this trip is perfect, from von Igelfeld’s obliviousness to why the students are so eager to switch roommates (even as the desk clerk tries to explain their lascivious intentions) to his rapid descent (not fall, certainly not that) from a mountain peak.

I particularly adore the interactions between von Igelfeld and his colleagues, all of whom are slightly more socially competent than he (as evidenced by their having managed to find and keep wives) but still delightfully dry and just what academics should be in a comic novel.  The rivalry between von Igelfeld and Unterholzer is perfect, with barbs traded in the break room, as is the condescension the professors show the friendly but rambling librarian.  But most of all, I love to see von Igelfeld interact with the Prinzels, husband and wife, who are good friends to him.  This friendship leads to delightfully straight-faced conversations like this one, after von Igelfeld has been accused of arriving early at the Prinzels and he has protested that no, he came at exactly the moment specified (which, of course, he did):

‘Oh, well,’ said Prinzel.  ‘You’re not early then – you’re prompt.  Like Immanuel Kant.  He used to go for his walks in Königsberg at the same time each day and the people of the town used to set their watches by him.’

‘That was very good,’ said von Igelfeld.  ‘Things appear to have deteriorated since then.  I imagine that there are very few philosophers today who keep regular hours.’

Admittedly, this exchange plays neatly into my love of Kant, but I think it is the ‘that was very good’ that charmed me so completely.

But, like Frau Prinzel, I am fretful about von Igelfeld’s bachelorhood, one of the main concerns of this novel. He is not very emotive but he has a good and loyal heart.  Like her, I believe he needs and deserves someone who can make him happy, which he is not right now.  It is very difficult to end a book knowing that a character you love is alone and sad, with no idea if or when this situation will be remedied.  I can only hope McCall Smith writes the next book soon!

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