Monday, July 31, 2006

Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding

I didn't feel like reading my current novel, so when I saw this on the shelf in my mum's house I decided it was time for a re-read.

It's wonderful to find a book that can make you really laugh, and even greater (though much more rare) to find that the book can still make you laugh even though you've read it half a dozen times. Bridget Jones's Diary is one such book, and it arguably started the whole chick-lit genre which seems to be about the level of reading that I'm capable of at the moment. The protagonist, in the best chick-lit spirit, is a delightfully ditzy person that you can't help liking even while you laugh your head off at her. Everything about Bridget, from her obsession with her weight, her quest for true love, to her concern over her mother's increasingly bizarre behaviour, are here for us to laugh at and relate to, all chronicled in Bridget's unique, personal pronoun-free writing style. Even though I've never been a thirtysomething single woman living in London, this book is so cleverly written that I feel like I'm right there.

The sequel, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason is even more hilarious, and it's on the shelf here too, so I think there may be a re-read in my future...

Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella

Here's some background, at last, to the highly enjoyable Shopaholic and Sister from several weeks back. In this novel, we meet Becky Bloomwood, the shopaholic with a secret - she's piling up the debts at an alarming rate, and it becomes harder and harder for her to hide this from her friends and family, including her flatmate Suze and her adoring parents. Her hilariously inappropriate job as a journalist for a magazine called "Successful Saving" just doesn't pay enough to support her habit. Becky continues to shop, inventing ever more ridiculous stories to hold off her bank manager, until suddenly things become overwhelming. She tries to run away, only to stumble on to the biggest story of her career, one that might finally help her to get some respect from the intriguing millionaire Luke Brandon.

Stay tuned for Shopaholic Ties the Knot and Shopaholic Takes Manhattan!

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Espresso Tales by Alexander McCall Smith

This sequel to 44 Scotland Street feels like the way my summer has been - a series of reunions with old friends. In Espresso Tales, I get to catch up with people I haven't "seen" for a long time, and find the answers to some questions I've longed to know the answer to. For instance: will the narcissistic Bruce ever get his come-uppance? Will Pat find true love? Will Matthew, the aimless art gallery owner, discover his calling? And what of Bertie, the exceptionally gifted five-year-old - will his mother abandon her project to raise him as an ungendered, bilingual saxophonist who does yoga in his spare time?

It's funny that a book so episodic in nature (each chapter is published separately in The Scotsman newspaper) should be so riveting, but Alexander McCall Smith has a way of creating characters who have an appealing authenticity (even the most ridiculous among them, like Ramsey Dunbarton, the writer of hilariously dull memoirs). Their foibles are sketched out in a gentle, teasing manner. While the novel as a whole skips from one story line to another, it doesn't feel disconnected, because the setting of Edinburgh geography and culture helps to tie everything together.

Reading this book gives me a sense of the personality behind the writing, but McCall Smith is never intrusive and doesn't feel the need to hit you over the head with his observations about human nature. This is why I enjoy his novels so much; he's not above philosophizing, but he never takes himself or his characters too seriously.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella

Samantha Sweeting, twenty-nine years old, has known no other life than the law. As the daughter of a highly successful barrister, Samantha has grown up with the pressure to succeed, and has set her own goal of becoming the youngest partner in her top London corporate law firm.

On the day she is to find out whether her dream of partnership is finally going to come true, Samantha discovers that for the first time ever she has made a mistake in her work - a mistake that will cost her firm's client fifty million pounds. This throws her into a blind panic. Her agitation leads her out of her office, into the streets of London, onto a train and, eventually, to the front door of Trish and Eddie Geiger, a nouveau-riche couple in the middle of interviews for a new housekeeper. Samantha's confused state leads her to accept the job... just for a day or two... after all, how hard could gourmet cooking and a bit of housework be?

This comedy of errors, which includes the obligatory British chick-lit romance and slightly ditzy main character, did not disappoint me as I continue to work my way through Sophie Kinsella's novels. She has a great way of writing a fun story that can be read on multiple levels, depending on what you want. The Undomestic Goddess can be a light romantic comedy, or it can give you food for thought about families, love, the price and meaning of success, and many other topics.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Strange Affair by Peter Robinson

It took me so long to get around to reading this fifteenth book in the "Inspector Banks" series that the sixteenth book has already been released in hardcover! That's the curse of having too many books on your shelf and not enough time to read them all.

In this installment, DCI Alan Banks receives a troubling phone message from his estranged brother, Roy, a slightly shady businessman who lives down in London. Banks drops everything to go and investigate when he's unable to reach Roy on the phone. Meanwhile, in Yorkshire, Banks's colleagues are frantically looking for him after a search of a murder victim's pockets reveals a slip of paper with Banks's name and address written on it. Not surprisingly, Roy's fate is closely intertwined with that of the murdered woman, and it's up to Banks and his colleagues in both Yorkshire and London to figure things out.

Mystery novels in an established series like this one need a careful balance between action, investigation and character development and I felt that this book focused so much on the latter two that the action suffered. For that reason, I don't think this novel would be a good introduction to Robinson's writing; there is very little tension and no cliffhanger ending. I was able to close the book, turn out the light and go to sleep when I was only 40 pages from the end! For Inspector Banks fans, though, Strange Affair is obviously a must-read as there are a lot of important developments in his personal life. I look forward to finding out what happens in the next book, Piece of my Heart.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Can You Keep a Secret? by Sophie Kinsella

Another piece of delightfully absurd fluffiness, courtesy of Sophie Kinsella. Just the thing to absorb the mind of a brain-dead mother on summer vacation!

After utterly failing at what should have been a simple deal-closing meeting in Glasgow, junior marketing assistant Emma Corrigan finds herself on a very, very bumpy plane ride back to London. When the turbulence convinces her that she's counting down the final minutes of her life, Emma contracts a serious case of verbal diarrhea. By the time the plane lands safely at home, she has told her seatmate, a quiet American man, every single secret of her life. She doesn't cut corners - he learns about everything from her true feelings about her boyfriend, Connor, to her opinion about g-string underpants, to the way she pretends to like the garish crocheted garments made by her friend Katie.

The next day, she arrives at work to find everyone in a tizzy. The owner and founder of the large corporation is visiting for the first time. Guess who he turns out to be? And guess who Emma finds herself falling in love with over the next few weeks?

I have to say I found this book hard to put down, in spite of its chick-lit predictability. It's not so much "what" happens in books like this, it's more "how" the story is told, and Sophie Kinsella has a wonderful gift for writing a truly laugh-out-loud story with characters you can't help rooting for at the same time you're chuckling over their ditziness.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Blessed are the Cheesemakers by Sarah-Kate Lynch

Abbey is a displaced Irishwoman living on a remote tropical island with her distant, obsessive husband, who is not everything he seems. Kit is a drunken New York City investment banker who has recently lost his wife, who was not everything she seemed, either. Both Abbey and Kit need to get away and start a fresh life.

Meanwhile, over in County Cork, Ireland, Abbey's grandfather Corrie and his lifelong friend Fee have realized that their time as artisan cheesemakers may be coming to an end soon. They need someone - or preferably two someones - to take over their world-famous cheesemaking operation and carry on a longtime tradition of taking in unwed mothers who milk the cows in exchange for room and board during their pregnancies. Hmm... I wonder who those two someones will turn out to be?

This book, as you probably guessed, is rather predictable, but it's a cute and fun read all the same. Since "funny, fluffy chick lit" seems to be the order of the day for me right now, I was happy that I'd selected it from my overflowing shelf of unread books and brought it with me on this vacation. Although the plot of Blessed are the Cheesemakersbrings no surprises (I guessed how the whole thing would work out, right up till the last scene, and I'm not someone who is too great at that - I didn't even figure out Professor Lupin's secret in the third Harry Potter book... duh!) , the characters are appealing. I found myself simultaneously caught up in Kit and Abbey's eventual coming together in mutual happiness, rooting for them while at the same time groaning inwardly over how predictable the whole affair was.

Next up - more fluffy fun courtesy of Sophie Kinsella!