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Description - Pianos and Flowers: Brief Encounters of the Romantic Kind by Alexander McCall Smith

In Pianos and Flowers we are invited, through the medium of sepia images, to glimpse a world long departed. In these stories, inspired by long-lost photographs, the lives of the people in the frame are imagined and then explored, layer by layer. What must have it like to be them? We hold our breath for them. Our heart beats faster for them. We look again at the photograph in a new light, and say Yes, it might have happened just like that.
This journey of exploration takes us to some exotic places. We share the lives of three sisters, brought up in Penang. We read of what happened to them, and to their Chinese neighbours caught in the tides of war. We see a group of small boys in a Glasgow slum, their young lives stunted by poverty, and hear how life worked out in contrasting ways for them. We follow a young woman's search for love in the unlikely realm of Egyptian antiquities. And through all of these photographs, and all of these stories, there runs the same refrain: the possibilities of love, of friendship, of happiness lie before us.
There are big stories in these simple pictures. At first glance the photographs may seem unexceptional: the mere freezing of a moment in time. But delve deeper and you will realise that these photographs speak volumes.

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Book Details

ISBN: 9781846975240
Format: Hardback
(205mm x 135mm x 20mm)
Pages: 192
Imprint: Birlinn Ltd
Publisher: Birlinn General
Publish Date: 7-Nov-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Book Reviews - Pianos and Flowers: Brief Encounters of the Romantic Kind by Alexander McCall Smith

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Book Review: Pianos and Flowers: Brief Encounters of the Romantic Kind by Alexander McCall Smith - Reviewed by (22 Feb 2020)

4.5?s Pianos and Flowers: Brief Encounters Of The Romantic Kind is a collection of short stories by British author, Alexander McCall Smith. He was offered access to the photographic archives of The Sunday Times and chose fourteen photographs about which to write accompanying stories. Six of the stories have been published earlier; the remainder are new.

In his inimitable fashion, McCall Smith selects some element of the photograph around which to build a wonderful story. Sometimes they are amusing, sometimes moving or poignant. Generally, a backstory is provided of both before and after the photograph, mostly not carrying equal weight. And what an imagination this man has!

Pianos and Flowers focuses on a row of figures on a lawn and describes the childhood of four British ex-pat siblings in Penang, and their subsequent return to Britain with their mother while their father remained abroad.

I’d Cry Buckets takes a scene of two young men crossing a burn with a freshly-shot stag laden on horseback and describes their discussion at the cusp of their entry into adult lives: an unnecessary confession is made.

Sphinx is one of the best of these stories, published previously and definitely worth rereading. After working in a Glasgow bank, twenty-six-year-old Margaret moves to London and a better job. It’s the 1930s and her landlady is suggesting she make an effort to find a husband, but Margaret is sure she will know the right man when she meets him. And she does. But things go a little amiss: is she going to end up marrying the not-quite-right man?

Maternal Designs: a besuited man strides away from a partially collapsed building. We are told he is an architect whose mother really wanted him to become a doctor, but eventually embraced his chosen profession, with more enthusiasm than he realised.

The Dwarf Tale-Teller of the Romanian Roms: from a Romny camp scene, McCallSmith conjures up an indignant anthropologist.

Duty draws a tale of motherless twin sisters from a scene of two women, twins who eventually wed – a delightful twist in the tail.

Iron Jelloids: from a photo of a tall woman and a short man on a tram, McCall Smith invokes the photo shoot of an advertisement for an iron supplement with miraculous effects.

Zeugma: a smiling woman seated on the crossbar of a bicycle ridden by a man becomes a linguistics professor giving a librarian a lift to work.

Urchins: a group of urchins on a street are given likely stories of deprivation and violence, but also heroism and moments fun and love.

St John’s Wort: a woman at a well in front of a country cottage becomes the house of a retired tractor mechanic who worries so incessantly about the global threat that it drives him to desperate measures. But a neighbour suggests a remedy.

Blackmail: a foggy street scene has two sweepers discussing their lot and the circumstances that led to their downfall. But one relates certain compensations of their job.

Pogo Sticks and Man with Bicycle: as young men enjoy their pogo sticks, certain professors, on the cusp of a momentous discovery, observe.

La Plage: a winter-clad couple strolls by a beach. While his wife gossips about family matters, the husband muses on bad investments and bathing machines and one’s path in life.

While by no means are these all stories of romantic encounters, many are delightful, and some are laugh-out-loud funny. McCall Smith’s literary version of people-watching is a treat.

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