Thursday, June 08, 2006

review: espresso tales

The sequel to '44 Scotland Street' by Alexander McCall Smith (author of the well-known 'No. 1 Ladie's Detective Agency' series). It is really a collection of stories based around a collection of characters, set in Edinburgh and centering on 44 Scotland St.
They were both enjoyable books, nothing particularly momentous happens, relationships change, small but life-changing things occur, it is lightly humourous and mildly philosophical. Some of the characters, such as the central character, Pat, the gallery owner Matt, the coffee shop owner Big Lou and Bertie, a six year old boy, are quite likeable. Others, such as the narcisistic Bruce and pushy mother Irene are much less so. It's an effective mix. But there are problems. The sage Domenica, neighbour and friend to Pat, began to really irritate me about halfway through the book, through always being 'right', or apparently so, but since I didn't always agree with her it grated. Also she didn't let anyone else get a word in edgewise. And she dismissed one character as being 'weak', and I dislike that. It's not the single characteristic of a personality.
Maybe the most irritating thing about it was the philosophy. The author is a philosopher, so I suppose he felt compelled to add it. Nothing wrong with that, except in the way he did it. Philosophy is not presented in a discussion, just handed down from the mouths of 'good' characters as a "this is the right way to think" sort of thing. At least this is the impression I got. It seemed somewhat incongruous, when occasionally people would sit down and just start explaining philosophy. Also the writing style is somewhat, hmm, terse? Maybe that's the wrong word, but it has a simplicity that works well with witty remarks, but just makes more reflective moments sound didactic. It worked better with 'No. 1 Detective Agency' because that was more plot driven, and it worked as a reflection of the main character, who was I think not so highly educated but intelligent nonetheless. At least, that's how I remember it, and if it's not so then you can see that that is the impression the writing style gave to me. Put in the context of a bunch of educated Edinburgh types, who are often pretty pretentious, it doesn't seem to work as well. Also, as I said before, nothing much happens, so the plot does not carry the style as much. A simple and clipped style can be very effective in a crowded plot, but a crowded plot is not in evidence here. The structure has a similar effect: it is made up of lots of short chapters centering on different characters and storylines. This would be because the book was previously published in serial form in a newspaper, but it adds to the overall impression of clipped shortness and simplicity.
Overall it is a fairly inconsequential book. It makes for a light and enjoyable read, with some interesting characters and developments, amusement and some interesting thoughts. But overall it left me feeling slightly unsatisfied, as though it was missing something. I guess it falls into the category of books-that-could-really-work-but-somehow-don't-quite. By all means read it, the Times review is quoted as saying that it is "as warm as cocoa, as cosy as thermal underwear, and just what the doctor ordered for cold winter evenings", so now would be the time. But just don't expect too much.


  1. Hmmm... it's understandable with 'clippedness' if it was published serially in a paper, so it's a ho-hum kinda book, that you would probably forget all about after you finish it??

  2. Well, it has its moments, and I think it aspires to be more than it ends up being, but kinda, yeah

  3. And how many stars out of 5, Margaret??? I can't be bothered reading a review, give me a numerical summary!!!!!!! GAH!

    Bec says These chewy Starbursts are yummy.

  4. :D

    well, I'd say it's a 3, maybe a 3 1/2.
    Kids these days, so darn lazy :p