Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Lucia in Wartime and Lucia Triumphant

During my absence on this blog, I turned to a number of comforting reads - two of which form part of the wonderful Mapp and Lucia saga.  Lucia in Wartime and Lucia Triumphant were both penned by Tom Holt in the mid-eighties and continue the story about the inhabitants of Tilling where the original author, E. F. Benson, left off.

For those of you not yet acquainted with the delicious sparrings of Miss Elizabeth Mapp and Mrs Emmeline Lucas, E. F. Benson wrote six exquisite novels - most set in Tilling (based accurately on Rye in East Sussex) revolving around its inhabitants and the constant battle for supremacy in social circles in this picturesque town. 

I have read all six original novels and also read Major Benjy by Guy Fraser-Sampson, which is another addition to the saga that was published in 2007.  I only had two short stories by Benson to look forward to and re-readings of these cheerful, witty novels.  So it was, with a hopeful heart, that I turned to Tom Holt's novels, which several Benson enthusiasts had proclaimed were as good as the originals.  My expectations were therefore quite high and my anticipation at re-entering Tilling with fresh stories was palpable.

Lucia in Wartime  plunges Tilling into World War II - a brave move as previous novels only ever hint at the legacies of the First World War - and embues all Tillingites with a strong dose of patriotism.  Not surprisingly, the social sparrings are concentrated around the war effort.  Both Mapp and Lucia try to outdo each other in terms of 'doing their bit' and each tries to gain prestige by assisting the army and country, although by very social means.  Major Benjy seizes control of the Home Guard and Georgie finds hidden talents in educating the nation on how to entertain in style by using modest and rationed ingredients.  Indeed, Georgie's ascending star threatens to eclipse Lucia's and even Mapp takes advantage of this momentary weakness.

Although this novel tries to mirror Benson's style and writing, I felt that it fell short in achieving this.  Perhaps it was the war setting that, although treated in a light-hearted way and only used as a device for Mapp and Lucia's social climbing, weighed down the atmosphere of the book.  I certainly did not like Mapp's portrayal and her constant defeat in battle against Lucia.  I think that all the characters, Mapp in particular, were not painted with the touch of fondness that Benson sometimes employs.  Benson's characters are largely self-involved, catty and underhand but you like them all the same as he pokes fun at their foibles whilst inviting us to laugh at them and admire their grace and wit.  In this novel, the main characters simply feel shallow and selfish and Mapp's portrayal was a little depressing for me as she is constantly thwarted and belittled.  I have a softness for Mapp and Benson skillfully nurtures this feeling in us when she does battle with Lucia on occassions when Lucia is patently in the wrong.


By contrast, I found Lucia Triumphant a much better offering and feel that Holt hit his stride in this novel.  The descriptions of Mallards and various Tilling (Rye-based) landmarks and houses are superbly described and successfully transport us to this enchanted town.  The tone and dialogue of this novel are so close to Benson's style that I quite often forgot that I was reading a pastiche.  The characters are all well-drawn with Lucia and Mapp sharing centre-stage in more or less equal quantities.  The fondness for the main characters was present and they were all largely successfully portrayed with wit and charm. 

Set in in a familiar war-free Tilling, Lucia is seeking a new outlet for her energies and questioning what the future holds for someone who has accomplished everything.  Mapp is on hand to spur her onwards and upwards and the lances are out for another round of social jousting.  Lucia dreams up an inspired and ambitious project to be known as the Tilling Tapestry which initially has all of Tilling (except Miss Mapp) at her beck and call.  Mapp naturally retaliates and succeeds in producing a new obsession to replace sewing and bridge... the Monopoly board.  I found this particular weapon quite inspired and entertaining whilst adding a modern feel to the novel.  Imagine it, all of Tilling held inthrall around a Monopoly board with each Tillingite appropriately represented by a Monopoly piece!


I highly recommend these two novels as a pleasant addition to the Mapp and Lucia sextet.  Although I personally found the first instalment weaker than the second, it is still an entertaining read and Lucia Triumphant certainly makes up for it.  Mr Holt successfully hit the mark with his second offering and it's such a shame that he stopped there.  May we please have some more?

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Agatha Christie Week

It's Agatha Christie Week and the 120th anniversary of this famous author's birth!  I first discovered Agatha Christie in my school library in my early teens and was hooked ever since.  I have probably read about half of her mystery novels (the Poirots being my favourite) but have been quite lax in reading any more. This is probably due to the love that I have for the wonderful adaptations with David Suchet (although the current episodes are not my favourites).  I know most of the stories by now... but this year I decided to read Agatha Christie in chronological order and to reintroduce myself to some of her other sleuths along the way.

Do pop over to the excellent Agatha Christie site as they have lists of events at the Torquay Agatha Christie Festival (if you're lucky enough to be in that beautiful spot) and also have several competitions going on.  Our local libraries in Kent usually have an interesting display of Christie books so that is also a good place to check out if you're interested.

If you're in London, Brown's Hotel in Mayfair are having a special Christie-themed tea which sounds quite delicious and fun.  If you're an established fan, or would like to sample her works, why not enter this fabulous competition to win each and every Christie book in your language?

I'm off to re-read the very first Christie (and Poirot) novel... The Mysterious Affair at Styles and am looking forward to working my way through all 80 plus books.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Return to Corduroy Mansions - Next Week!

Yes, it's that time of year again when Alexander McCall Smith turns his attention to his perennially popular online novel, Corduroy Mansions.  The third instalment - A Conspiracy of Friends - commences on Monday, 13 September 2010 and runs until December 2010.

I hope to read the second instalment in book form soon and I'm tempted to rush into the third online.  It's quite cheering to visit the Telegraph page each morning to enjoy Iain McIntosh's comical drawings first thing... and then taking in the hilarity of the chapter headings before you even begin to read the chapter.

I'm used to following these novels in Autumn and Winter in the UK - a cosy antidote to the darkening days - but this time I will be following its initial progress in a very hot South Africa.  It'll feel strange but it should allay some of my homesickness.

You can follow the daily chapters online here or opt to receive daily podcasts of the audio version - read by Andrew Sachs - further down on the same page. 

I only hope that he'll find time to continue with the lovely Scotland Street series in the Scotsman this year, so that I'll be able to read it next year when it is published in book form.  Fingers crossed!

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Between Two Continents

Hello to all my dear readers and friends.  I have missed you all and missed following your postings and comments.  I hope to be resuming with this blog now, with a greater emphasis on book reviews and bookish things.  I would like to thank you all again for your kind and touching words of condolences.  This has been even harder than I could imagine and the pain continues, made worse by the unbelievable bureaucracy and costs that accompany such an event.

My life is currently suspended between the UK and South Africa and I'm not sure when it will return to normal.  I have found some comfort in reading and hope to have some reviews up in due course.  I have received a few review copies and would like to thank the publishers for their generosity. I shall try to read these and review them as soon as I can.

I have decided to give the blog a makeover and simplify things.  Although I liked the design of the previous incarnation, it wasn't suitable for all monitor resolutions.  I hope that the current style does the job and conveys a little warmth and simplicity.

I look forward to hearing from you all again and to dip in and out of your comments and blog postings.

A joyful Spring to those of you in the South and a mellow Autumn/Fall to those in the North.  Whatever the hemisphere, the latter part of the year holds a bounty of new publications.  Happy reading!