16

Book Gluttony: The Library Trip

I did it again. I ignored the piles of unread books in my own house to take a trip to the library and bring home another pile of books to read.

I could take the time to unpack what is wrong with me that I can’t seem to be happy with the riches already in my home and insist on making my reading life that much more chaotic (to say nothing of the physical piles of chaos I’ve created in our home…) but who wants to do that?

Want to hear about the bookish treasure I took home instead?

That’s what I thought. Read on, book lovers!

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson. I’ve been wanting and meaning to read this book ever since it came out but for whatever reason, every time I pick it up in a bookstore, I’ve put it down again. But hey, I work in communications, it might not be a bad idea to finally read this book about the “renaissance of public shaming” via social media.

Girl at War by Sara Novic. I keep seeing this book and reading about it and it kind of jumped out at me at the library so I brought it home. This book about the war in Yugoslavia and it’s aftermath on our heroine, Ana Juric holds a personal connection for me: my father was a peacekeeper in that conflict. I’m not sure that I’ve ever read any fiction about this area and I’m glad for the opportunity to remedy that.

Friends, Lovers, Chocolate by Alexander McCall Smith. I can’t seem to quit him. And after reading the most recent Isabel Dalhousie novel (The Novel Habits of Happiness) I decided that I’d been harsh on this series based on the first book. This is the second book in the series and I’m excited to potentially have another mystery series to love.

The Woman Who Stole My Life by Marian Keyes. I LOVE Marian Keyes. I’m pretty sure I own all of her books. I meant to buy this one. But every time I almost did it, I stopped myself. When I saw it at the library, I thought to myself why do I need to own this book? Why not just take it home now? So that’s exactly what I did.

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See. Earlier this year I read and LOVED China Dolls. I’m hoping that Shanghai Girls is more of the same. Shanghai in the 1930s always seems like the most elegant place, until it all falls to sh*t of course.

Well there you have it. Are you marvelling at my self restraint? I only brought home FIVE books, guys. I can totally get through a pile of five books. I was actually incredibly selective when I went this time. I spent a lot of time in non-fiction but there was nothing there that I had to read immediately. Actually it just made me feel bad that I had books by A.N. Wilson and Judith Flanders already sitting at home since I glanced at some of their other work and almost brought them home too…

Also. There’s a teachers weekend at one of the big bookstores up here, the weekend of the 26th and I’ve already had one of the teachers in my book club offer to take advantage of that on my behalf so the book gluttony isn’t slowing down any time soon…

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8

A Return to Edinburgh by Book

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

I haven’t had such great luck with the standalone novels of Alexander McCall Smith. But I’m a pretty big fan of his series’.

The Novel Habits of Happiness is the 10th book in the Isabel Dalhousie series (also known as the Sunday Philosopher’s Club series). I’ve only read the first book, The Sunday Philosopher’s Club. I enjoyed it but I didn’t feel the same affinity for it that I do for the 44 Scotland Street series. Still, I was looking forward to a return visit to Edinburgh (via book obviously).

novel habits

Isabel Dalhousie is an amateur sleuth in Edinburgh. By day she runs a philosophy magazine and the rest of the time she can’t say no to helping those that have need of her services. This time Isabel’s friend asks for help on behalf her new neighbour, a woman recently split up with her husband. The woman’s six year old son has recently started saying that he has lived a past life, that he was actually the son of a family called Campbell and that he lived in this house near a lighthouse. The woman is unsettled by this and asks Isabel to help sort out the problem.

This is probably one of those times where the bare bones description of the book does it a disservice. Reading it thus it probably sounds a) far fetched and b) not like your cup of tea at all. But the way McCall Smith writes makes all the difference. I get the feeling that in Isabel Dalhousie we get the closest to what her creator is like in real life. I suspect that McCall Smith himself feels and thinks very much like Isabel – she has a tendency to let one thing lead her mind to wander into all corners of thought.

I think I liked this one better than the original because Isabel felt more like a real person. In the intervening 8 books, she has been married and had a child. Her life has taken on more every day occurrences and that makes her feel more like a real person. Isabel’s father left her enough money to live on and she has a beautiful house (also left to her) and in that first book there wasn’t that much about her that I could relate to. This time I enjoyed the time I spent with her so much.

After I finished The Sunday Philosopher’s Club I thought that maybe I would just stick with the 44 Scotland Street series. But after having read The Novel Habits of Happiness, I want to go back and read the rest of the books to see what all I missed.

7

This Unrequited Love Thing: The Forever Girl

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

Before I went to Edinburgh, I had never read Alexander McCall Smith. I’d barely heard of him (hard to believe now – he’s everywhere!).

But after spending four magical days in that city (seriously, my favourite after Amsterdam) I started looking for books to take me back. Alexander McCall Smith fit that bill in a big way. I’ve since started digging into the 44 Scotland Street series, given Isabel Dalhousie and the Sunday Philosopher’s Club a chance, and even tried his version of Emma (sadly that one doesn’t take place in Edinburgh).

I love McCall Smith’s ability to write about the every day and infuse it with meaning. I love that his books cover parts of the lives of a myriad of different characters and that his love for Edinburgh is evident on every page. He is skilled at contemplating the minutiae of the commonplace and reading his work is like a big ol’ cup of tea on a grey day.

So I was excited to read The Forever Girl.

forever girl

Amanda and David are raising their son and daughter within the ex-pat community on Grand Cayman Island. The nature of the Island (a tax shelter) means that most people on the island have a lot of money. Amanda spends her days at the tennis club, practicing her serve while the children are left in the care of their nanny. Their daughter Sally, decides she’d rather be called Clover at age 4, and finds herself falling in love with James, her childhood best friend.

While Clover is figuring out this love thing, Amanda is finding that life on such a small island, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, can actually be extremely claustrophobic. She realizes that she’s fallen out of love with her husband and is conflicted about what to do about it.

I liked the storyline that centered on Amanda. As she struggles to come to terms with the state of her marriage, she tries to decide what to do about it. Does she want to get out of her marriage? Does she want to change the whole structure of her family or just ride it out? She flirts with the idea of an affair and realizes that in a place this small, there could be serious repercussions that don’t just affect her.

But then Clover takes over the story and I wanted to like Clover but the whole unrequited love thing is getting old for me I think. I have a really hard time with female characters that make decisions based on men. Clover goes to boarding school in Scotland, while her love James, goes to England. Something happened that has made James cool towards Clover but instead of just asking him what’s wrong, she just inwardly shakes and hopes that everything will work out.

Her parents have all this money and she can do anything she wants. She’s a smart girl but she pins all of her hopes and dreams, all of her chances at happiness on the idea of being with this one boy. She closes her mind and her heart to the idea of ever being with anyone else. She travels to Australia and Singapore and all of it is motivated with being near James. But she won’t just say to him “James, I have been in love with you since we were 11.”

I need these kinds of characters to stop. I need to read female characters that say “f*%& this sh*t, I’m not waiting around for this chump, I’m going to make my own destiny.”

I love Alexander McCall Smith but this one? Fell flat for me.

18

Snobby Austen – Emma: A Modern Retelling

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review.

If you’ve poked around this site even a little bit, you will know that I love Jane Austen. I started reading her books when I was about 11 and I never looked back. Each time I re-read any of them, they seem like a completely different book.

I know that there are loads of Austen fans that love the books that are still a part of that world, that can’t wait to hear what happens to their favourite characters at the hands of different authors but I’m not one of those readers. Occasionally there will be a book that promises a different spin and I’ve given a handful of those a whirl (Those books by Syrie James, Austenland, Longbourn by Jo Baker, Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James) but in general, I’m not interested.

And then Alexander McCall Smith turned his pen (or computer, not sure what his preference is) to Jane Austen and I couldn’t stop myself from reading his effort. It’s not perhaps the most original idea to take a classic story and update it (Clueless is also based on Emma, 10 Things I Hate About You is the Taming of the Shrew etc) but when Alexander McCall Smith gives it a try, you kind of assume it will be good.

emma

In Emma: A Modern Retelling, Emma Woodhouse is still an inmate of Hartfield in the country village of Highbury. Her father is still a hypochondriac, and her governess, Miss Taylor, still ends up with Mr Weston. The vicar, Mr Elton is still a douche, Frank Churchill is still dishonest, Jane Fairfax misunderstood and Harriet Smith is still Emma’s project.

But while I always found Jane Austen’s Emma to be generally well-meaning, if a tad overbearing and snobby, she was always a product of her time and so her bad behaviour could be excused in a way. Mr Woodhouse is much more involved in Emma’s life in McCall Smith’s novel – he admonishes her when he feels like she’s been cruel which Austen’s Mr Woodhouse never did. It was hard at times to like this modern Emma – she tries setting up her friend Harriet in a situation where she wouldn’t have to work because for this Emma it’s the most natural thing in the world to make men pay for her lifestyle while she pays him back in a comfortable home and dinner on the table. It was hard to cheer for this Emma, to make excuses for her. At some points in the novel, I actively disliked her.

In that respect, Emma: A Modern Retelling offended my modern feminist sensibilities. But I appreciated that McCall Smith’s characters were more frank than Austen’s. When Emma offends Miss Bates, she comes right out and apologizes properly  – she feels bad for a good long while too. They have an open conversation about the way Emma made Miss Bates feel. Jane Fairfax too is given the opportunity to tell Emma exactly how she feels about her which Austen’s Miss Fairfax is never allowed to do.

But the great thing about Austen’s Emma is the slow burn of her feelings for Mr Knightley. By the time they both voice their feelings on the matter, it’s not a surprise to the reader. In an effort to modernize the rest of the village (Frank Churchill has been a resident of Western Australia,  Jane Fairfax went to Cambridge, Harriet’s parentage is part single mother, part anonymous sperm donor etc) McCall Smith forgot to flesh out the Mr Knightley story – Mr Knightley has been a background actor until all of a sudden he’s declaring his love for Emma. If you’re already familiar with the Austen version you’re like “oh right, they love each other” but if you’re not I imagine it would be a bit out of left field.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of these Austen-related books but for me, nothing will ever come close to the original.

11

Revisiting Old Friends: Espresso Tales

I’ve been blazing through a lot of newer reading lately. I’m not complaining – it’s been awesome. There have been some fantastic books coming out.

But every once in a while, it’s kind of nice to step back and wander off with an older book. It had been a while since I first spent time with the denizens of 44 Scotland Street and I decided that it was about time I went back to see how they were all doing.

Alexander McCall Smith is the kind of writer that is able to weight ordinary, everyday occurrences with all kinds of significance and I enjoy spending time in his world. I think one of the things that makes this series such an original is that all of the places described are real – a quick Google maps search will take you to any of the spots mentioned. Go ahead – google 44 Scotland Street.

Nice spot right?

It’s one of the things I love the most about reading these books – a chance to spend some time in Edinburgh, one of my favourite cities on the planet, even if I can’t actually be in Edinburgh.

espresso

The second book, Espresso Tales, takes place more or less where we left off: Bruce is still self obsessed, although this time he’s trying to take advantage of a guy who has always tried to be a good friend to him; Pat is still kind of wandering in the wilderness between her back to back gap years and actually starting university; six year old Bertie is still trying desperately to get out from under his mother’s thumb; and Domenica is still the resident oracle, full of keen observances on the state of the human condition.

This book was heavy on Bertie as he tried to get his mom to stop making him wear pink overalls and go to normal children’s birthday parties instead of to yoga, Italian classes and saxophone lessons. He’s an incredibly insightful little boy and I suspect that if his parents listened to him a little more they would be surprised at just how perceptive he is.

One marked difference in this instalment is that McCall Smith seems to branch out a little bit, taking us into the lives of those that are connected to 44 Scotland Street but don’t necessarily live there. In this way, McCall Smith is casting his net a little wider, including more of Edinburgh in his stories. The characters that he has created are deeply flawed and almost all of them think more of themselves and their significance than they maybe should. But that’s what’s so great about reading these books – McCall Smith tells us like it is in a very straightforward way that I’m coming to learn is fairly Scottish. 

It was a lovely little read, perfect for brief snatches of reading time – because it was originally serialized for newspaper publication, the chapters are short, more like a collection of short stories than a novel.

I definitely had a good time catching up with my friends in Edinburgh and you can bet that I’ll be on the lookout for the next installment, Love Over Scotland, when I’m next at the library.

9

A Saturday Post

I never post on the weekends but I’ve been kind of a slacker in the blog department this week so I thought maybe a weekend post would make it up to you.

The other day I was wondering aloud about why there are so rarely books that are illustrated anymore. If you ever get the right Dickens’ version of anything you will get delightful illustrations. I believe that William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair has them as well – evidently a trend in their time. Adults like pictures too! This topic led me down the rabbit hole of wondering why there aren’t any more novel serializations in newspapers.

Aside from the fact that newspapers almost aren’t even a thing anymore, wouldn’t it be delightful if, among all the stories of explosions, war, deadly storms and bad people, there were fictional stories that lightened the mood? I’d read that.

Then I started reading 44 Scotland Street. Evidently Alexander McCall Smith had the same thoughts a few years ago. 44 Scotland Street was serialized in The Scotsman in Edinburgh and after the fact it was put together in a book and illustrated.

I wonder if I could have used more italics in that last paragraph…

Reading through some of the reviews on Goodreads before I started the book the consensus seemed to be that the book is about nothing. I’m not totally sure that I agree but it is one of those books about everyday life. Kind of the way A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is about everyday things but is one of the best books ever.

44 scotland street

44 Scotland Street introduces us to a variety of characters living in apartments at…yeah, 44 Scotland Street. Pat is on her second gap year, working in a gallery wher she may or may not have found a famous painter’s work. Bruce is Pat’s flatmate, the most narcissistic, arrogant little sh*t you ever did meet – he’s out for himself and there’s nothing better than watching him fail. Domenica MacDonald is the neighbour across the hall, an anthropologist that has lived lives enough for 2 people, she introduces Pat to a whole other side of Edinburgh. And there’s little Bertie, a five-year-old pushed into learning Italian and playing the tenor sax by his overbearing mother, Irene.

I will admit to having a soft spot for anything taking place in Edinburgh or by authors that hail from that particular spot on the planet right now. I was in Edinburgh in the Spring, it’s where I got engaged and if there was any way I could live there for always, I’d do it in a heartbeat. For now I will have to content myself with reading about it. This was the first book by Alexander McCall Smith that I read – I will be following this up with more. Lucky for me there are a lot of titles to choose from! McCall Smith enjoyed the experience of writing this serialization so much that he extended the run and there is now a series about the characters.

This book basically managed to take three things I felt were missing from my literary education – illustrations, serialized fiction, and Edinburgh – and put them all in one book. A library win.