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.

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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.

9

Apt Titles: When Will There Be Good News?

Earlier this year I was delighted with Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. I had never heard of Kate Atkinson before that and evidently, that was a serious mistake on my part. Speaking with a co-worker, I was informed that she has actually written a number of other books in the crime fiction genre. How was this something that I had overlooked?

I love crime fiction!

This same co-worker, responsible for my crash course introduction to the genius of Ian Rankin, made sure to educate me on Kate Atkinson and dropped a few of her books on my desk the next day.

The first one I made my way through was When Will There Be Good News?

A more apt title there probably never was. Nothing good happens in this book. If you are feeling a little blue and like the world is a sh*thole, don’t read this book.

when-will-there-be-good-news-pb

In the first 10 pages, an entire family is murdered, cut down in broad daylight by a crazy loaner with a knife. Mom, baby, one daughter and the dog, all dead. The surviving daughter is sent to live with dad and his mistress. Then we meet Reggie whose mother drowned on vacation with her new boyfriend. Dad’s been dead for years and her brother is a criminal. She is a mother’s helper to a Dr. Hunter who is basically the best person she’s ever known.

So naturally Dr. Hunter and her baby go missing one night. Reggie ends up spending that same night with her teacher/only friend who has cancer and ends up driving her car off the road and causing a train derailment.

One of our characters, Jackson Brodie,  on the train. He’s just been to steal a hair from a child that he’s convinced is his. He’s headed back to London to his new wife who is supposed to have been in DC this whole time.

So many bad things! When Dr. Hunter is missing and no one seems to take it seriously, Reggie takes the case to the police. The police officer who takes on the case, Louise, is kind of a bitch. She is married to this wonderful man and all she can think about is how suffocating it is to be married.

The story is very layered, a lot happens in a relatively short amount of time – 348 pages.  The lives of the characters intersect in unexpected ways but not always in a satisfactory way. Because there are so many characters that each have their own important plotlines to carry, the end can feel a bit hurried. I still have a lot of questions.

When I was in the middle of the book and finding that a lot of bad things were happening, I was assured by my co-worker that the end was happy. I guess, in light of what transpired over the course of the novel, the end could be considered happy. But it’s not really.

I loved Life After Life. I want to love Kate Atkinson. But based on When Will There Be Good News? I’m not sure that this is where we’re headed.

8

Doors Open

I used to be a massive book snob. I was very capable of making my own book selections thankyouverymuch. I didn’t need input from other people because I was pretty sure that I was a better reader than them.

I was a total a**hole.

But within the past two years I’ve allowed other people to make reading suggestions that I’ve actually taken seriously. Sometimes these recommendations were followed up with that person actually lending me said book. And then I felt like I had to read it because they were being so nice about it and I dislike when people keep my books for a really long time. Other times I happened upon a recommendation on my next book outing and it seemed too much like fate to ignore.

Mostly I attribute this change in bookish attitude to my book club. The books that we’ve read have mostly been really great and most of them I never would have chosen on my own. Those girls showed me that I don’t know everything book related.

And mostly I’ve been very happy to be wrong.

Such was the case with Ian Rankin. I had heard of Ian Rankin before and when he made an appearance as a character in 44 Scotland Street I was even more curious. So when a colleague waxed poetical about her love of Ian Rankin and her very near miss of actually running into him when she was in Edinburgh, I was very intrigued. A few days later I found a stack of her Ian Rankin books on my desk.

I just finished my first one, Doors Open and it was great! I shouldn’t be surprised as it’s crime fiction and we all know about my love of crime fiction.

doors open

Mike Mackenzie is a very rich, very bored man so when his friend suggests that they “liberate” a few paintings from a warehouse by the water that actually houses a bunch of overflow works of art, he not only agrees, he goes about finessing the plot. The first quarter of the book leads up to the heist and you meet all kinds of characters from the art student who is aces at forging masterpieces, to the criminal mastermind that you really don’t want to cross and the banker who is having serious second thoughts.

The real fun doesn’t start until after the heist though, when human nature starts to make them all doubt each other. Suddenly friendships mean nothing, Scandinavian muscle shows up to collect on behalf of his boss and Inspector Ransome is on all their tails trying to piece together what actually happened.

As I was reading it I totally thought that it would make an excellent movie. I did a quick search this morning to see if that was likely and lo and behold I found this! So I’m going to have to keep my eyes out for that!

I have like 5 other Ian Rankin books still waiting for my attention. I don’t think I will dive right into the next one – I still like reading variety even if I’m not so picky about what I will and won’t read anymore. But when I finish The Midwife of Venice, I will definitely pick up another one and I’m likely to enjoy it too.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m glad I stopped being such a d*ck about reading.

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.