“Sometimes we need to escape the world, sometimes we need desperately to engage with it. The magic of books is that we can do both through them, with nary an extra calorie or hangover to show for it.” Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
I’ve been “binge reading” again and playing catchup with the last two instalments of Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series!
Why do we love series so much and why are they good for us, especially for kids? Here’s some reasons: 1) familiarity and the joy of already knowing some of the characters and the excitement of finding out what happens next, 2) ease of choice about what to read, 3) positive reinforcement and a sense of accomplishment, 4) momentum because we tend to gobble them up and read them quickly. It’s all of the same reasons we binge watch TV shows.
Probably best know for the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective series, McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series is about the residents of a fictitious apartment building on a real street in Edinburgh. Check out the author’s website for complete book lists. What I love about McCall Smith is his sense of humour, his musings about moral decisions, and his presentation of everyday sorts of problems to solve. After hearing him speak a number of times in the UK, I can imagine him chortling as he drafts another character’s dilemma.
The Bertie Project (11) deals with some darker topics such as tragic accidents and infidelity. Elspeth struggles to find help with her rambunctious triplets, Bruce’s latest girlfriend has a dangerous interest in extreme sports, and poor seven year old Bertie and his father Stuart continue to be under the thumb of their overbearing mother and wife. Irene used to be amusingly awful but now she has become insufferable.
A Time of Love and Tartan (12) brings some things to a satisfying conclusion and leaves others hanging–of course that’s life isn’t it? There’s a slapstick scene involving Matthew and the police over a misunderstanding in a bookstore, oddly Pat reveals she still has feelings for that narcissist Bruce, Elspeth finds a solution for her triplets that seems too good to be true, and I can say that at least there is finally some hope and joy for Bertie and Stuart!
Translated from the French (‘Chanson Douce‘), and called ‘Lullaby‘ in the UK, this thriller is about paying someone else to take care of your kids and the ways in which that can go off the rails. The book is enjoying a high profile at the moment with some stellar reviews, and was recommended to me as a profound work examining topics like parenting and what it’s like to work as domestic help. But I found the book disappointing and didn’t feel that the author captured the nuance of this topic well enough. Instead the novel felt harsh and creepy, getting at the issues through scare tactics rather than thoughtful consideration.
The horrific opening would likely put off some readers right from the start. This is a ‘why-dunit’ not a ‘whodunit’ because you read about the murder of two children by a nanny on the first two pages and the rest of the book is a slow burning explanation of how this might have happened. I had expected some further twists and turns to redeem it or some more helpful conclusions beyond shallow themes of power/class and depravation/plenty. Sadly it said nothing helpful or hopeful about the fact that many parents rely on child care–they really don’t need to have additional guilt or terror heaped on.
When I read The Dry, Jane Harper’s first instalment in a mystery series set in Australia featuring Aaron Falk, I was so excited because I was looking forward to more from this author. The Dry was so compelling, atmospheric, beautifully written, and had me at the edge of my seat the whole way. So I got the second instalment as soon as I could, but sadly it did not live up to my expectations. Force of Nature was just not as good as The Dry. If you haven’t read The Dry, by all means read it, but if you have, give the second one in this series a pass in favour of The Mountain Story by Lori Lansens. Both are about a group of hikers entering the bush, but coming out minus one. What happened on the trail and why is actually hugely compelling, but in this case Lansens did a much better job of a great premise than Harper did.
“The ones we love…are enemies of the state.” Sophocles
A contemporary re-imagining of Sophocles’ Antigone (which I was unfamiliar with until I wiki-ed it), deals with clashes between family, society, and religious faith. It is a tragic tale of two very different Muslim families in Britain, in an age of terror.
This year’s winner of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, it was also longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2017. Most Bailey’s selections are readable, but this one was also suspenseful to the end and had an epic feel, despite its relatively short length. The author looks at love and loyalty with the backdrop of today’s immigration issues and ‘home-grown’ terrorism. It’s so easy to paint people from other religions and cultures with the same brush, but there is of course such considerable difference and nuance in each person’s story.
“Isma is free. After years of watching out for her younger siblings in the wake of their mother’s death, she’s accepted an invitation from a mentor in America that allows her to resume a dream long deferred. But she can’t stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister back in London, or their brother, Parvaiz, who’s disappeared in pursuit of his own dream, to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew. When he resurfaces half a globe away, Isma’s worst fears are confirmed.”
Each of the main characters in this story gets their turn to be the narrator which is a style that really works well for this type of novel. After all, seeing things from someone else’s viewpoint is the most crucial element in empathy and understanding. I like how one reviewer described this book, as “…a novel that poses weighty questions about British politics and society through their impact on the most elemental levels of the state: the family and the human heart.”