It’s not often that a collection of stories comes along that doesn’t have a mix of average, above-average and maybe a couple of bombs. When I wrote my reading status update for A Table Near the Band I didn’t really have a lot of confidence that the stories would continue to be the same high-quality delight that the first two proved to be – what would be the chances? Imagine my surprise to find that, with the exception of 1 story, the entire collection never failed to surprise, entertain and charm.
I have to start first with the dedication, because it made me laugh:
Whose weekly parcel from the Library has included
this or that book, either because it has been re-
commended by a friend or because the author’s
previous work has recommended itself:
Who has flipped through the pages in happy anticipa-
tion and found that it is a book of short stories :
Who has said disappointedly
“Oh! short stories, and
has put it aside and settled down to one of the
I DEDICATE THIS ONE
At the same time pointing out to her that completely
revealing titles which are both attractive and as
yet unused are hard to come by, and that after all
one should expect
A TABLE NEAR THE BAND
to offer a view of other tables, at each one of which
some story may well be in the making.
How often have I done this to myself – buying a book thinking it a story only to find it’s a collection of them. Thankfully, this was not one of those books, but one I did buy on the strength of A.A. Milne’s The Red House Mystery, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
A list of the stories, with individual ratings and a sentence worth of blurb follows:
A Table Near the Band: 5 stars. The titular story and a short comedy of … not errors, but a neat encapsulation of the foibles of both genders. Neither side comes out looking good, but it’s light and amusing.
The Prettiest Girl in the Room: 5 stars. This one starts out sad and depressing, but midway through turns into a sweet, generous tale that manages to warm the heart without the saccharine side-effects.
A Man Greatly Beloved: 5 stars. I was completely knocked back by this story; it starts off quietly and as though it could be predictable, although the narrator’s voice has an unintended cheekiness to it that is amusing. The story than abruptly turns into an altogether different animal that leaves the reader foundering a bit, but Milne closes the story as gracefully as can be imagined.
The Rise and Fall of Mortimer Scrivens: 5 stars. An epistolary short story that had me laughing at the ‘villain’s’ comeuppance, done in a way that really only British humour can pull off.
Christmas Party: 4.5 stars. Family holidays from an untapped perspective, but which one anyone part of a married couple has experienced, and Milne delivers on the ultimate irony of the perpetual perception of the importance of family togetherness.
The Three Dreams of Mr. Findlater: 4 stars. Disturbing. Well-written but with an ending that leaves the reader both crying deus ex machina! and floundering with judgement of the character.
The River: 4 stars. This one was well-written but an odd duck. The premise – the power of a powerful coincidence – works well enough, but given the reader knows the ultimate end of the story from almost the beginning, it fails to have the power it might have had under different circumstances.
Murder at Eleven: 3 stars. The weakest, by far, of all the stories and a murder mystery, but a transparent one. Luckily, it’s short.
A Rattling Good Yarn: 5 stars. A humorous tale about how revenge can be subtle and still be sweet.
Portrait of Lydia: 4 stars. Another mystery, but better written; the reader knows there’s something hinky but doesn’t get all the details until the end, when the protagonist finds out years later.
The Wibberly Touch: 4.5 stars. I want to call this another ironic story, but I’m not sure it is; it’s obvious that Milne writes with a satiric pen about a character that’s not nearly as suave or as good as he thinks he is, but the reader is left thinking he’s an ass, but is a really a dishonest one?
Before the Flood: 4.5 stars. Not a morality tale, but a different perspective on the events proceeding the great biblical flood. Told with humor, but not with disrespect.
The Balcony: 5 stars. This one is the most theological and not necessarily one that a lot of people would consider good, but it resonated with me a great deal because Milne plays with the average person’s overly simplified idea of judgement and heaven. It’s a short piece but it balances angst and hope reasonably well, leaving an ending that is up to the reader to decide.
From a strictly mathematical point of view, the collection is not quite 4.5 stars, but I rounded up in acknowledgement of a collection that I never shied away from picking back up. Milne wasn’t just a gifted children’s author, but a gifted author, capable of charming both young and old.