While catching up on this #10 of a favourite series, I made a discovery. Alexander McCall Smith wrote some in-betweeners about Isabel Dalhousie for Penguin Random House’s Vintage Shorts, an interesting collection by established authors and newcomers. Exclusively electronic in format, these short stories can be accessed free on ebook from your local library with Overdrive, or else purchased from Kindle or Kobo, although they could just as easily be left out of the series as well. A full listing of all of the books in the Isabel Dalhousie series, including the additional short stories can be found here. Isabel Dalhousie is a philosopher in her early forties and lives alone in an aging house in the south of Edinburgh. Thanks to a large inheritance left to her by her late mother, she is able to work for a nominal fee as the editor of the Review of Applied Ethics.
I love reading lighthearted series like this in a busy season because the characters and setting are already familiar. The reading is light but only because it deals with the quotidian. As an Emeritus Professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh, McCall Smith is no slouch. There is a lot of philosophical thinking and reasoning mixed up in these novels. Alexander McCall Smith is the master of the everyday moral dilemma and he makes it so very amusing.
Here are the short stories:
The Perils of Morning Coffee (#8.5) Isabel once again gets into trouble by being friendly and helpful in her community. She is reminded not to jump to hasty conclusions about people and eventually gets to the truth of the situation. As one reviewer on Goodreads said, “A little puzzle and a few misconceptions mixed with a bit of philosophy and a touch of humour.”
At the Reunion Buffet (#10.5) School reunions can be fraught. The author gets at the curious nature of meeting up with people 20 years later, sometimes with those we didn’t get along with in the first place! Old grudges and alliances along with petty feelings, are sure to surface and wreak havoc on what should perhaps be a happy occasion.
Sweet, Thoughtful Valentine (#10.7) This was my favourite of these three short stories. Isabel is confronted with an ethical conundrum around promise keeping. It involves an interesting painting that she discovers in an auction house, while searching for a gift for her husband. As ever, Isabel can’t reason out what the best course of action might be in the situation and wants to get involved in something against her better judgement.
This novel is based on real events that happened between 2005 and 2009 in a remote Mennonite community in Bolivia where more than 100 girls and women were drugged unconscious and raped in the night by what they were told were “ghosts” or “demons.” Women Talking is an imagined response to these real events. It takes place over 48 hours, as eight women hide in a hayloft while the men are in a nearby town posting bail for the perpetrators. They have come together to debate, on behalf of all the women and children in the community, whether to stay or leave before the men return. Taking minutes is the one man invited by the women to witness the conversation–a former outcast whose own surprising story is revealed as the women talk. The time has come for the men to listen and the women to talk!
The book has been published at the right time, it’s kind of a Mennonite Me Too! There are also parallels with The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood that was recently adapted into a TV series. There’s a great Guardian article about the author and this book, which is worth a read: here.
Canadian author Miriam Toews (pronounced ‘Taves’) is known for writing novels about her religious and family background–the author is obviously conflicted about her love for her heritage, family, and community, but also angry about how members of that same rigid and righteous community are treated, especially women. (Notice what the highlighted letters on the cover spell). With all of her books I get the feeling that she really needed to write them to sort out her own feelings about her upbringing. In this novel the women who are kept illiterate and seem to have no higher value than the animals on the farm, are given a voice in a witty and heartbreaking way. The conversation that ensues features some deeply philosophical thinking and a real struggle to determine a way forward. It may seem simple, but it’s complicated.
Toews is a master at comic relief, dealing deftly with deeply disturbing topics by employing her signature dark humour. Reading this on the heels of Educated by Tara Westover was interesting because there were so many parallels. This would be an interesting book club read for sure, although for myself, I preferred her last book All My Puny Sorrows, a poignant fiction based on true events in her own family regarding her sister’s suicide.
Memphis, Tennessee, 1936. The five Foss children find their lives changed forever when their parents leave them alone on the family shantyboat one stormy night. Rill Foss, just twelve years old, must protect her four younger siblings as they are wrenched from their home on the Mississippi and thrown into the care of the infamous Georgia Tann, director of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.
South Carolina, Present Day. Avery Stafford has lived a charmed life. Loving daughter to her father, a U.S. Senator, she has a promising career as an assistant D.A. in Baltimore and is engaged to her best friend. But when Avery comes home to help her father weather a health crisis and a political attack, a chance encounter with a stranger leaves her deeply shaken. Avery’s decision to learn more about the woman’s life will take her on a journey through her family’s long-hidden history.
Two stories of very different families, generations apart, alternate in this poignant story of love and loss that highlights an unthinkable chapter in US history. The Memphis Tennessee Children’s Home basically stole children from poor families, and sold them to families of privilege. Wingate’s historical fiction is hopeful and sincere. The dedication to the book says it all:
“For the hundreds who vanished and for the thousands who didn’t. May your stories not be forgotten. For those who help today’s orphans find forever homes. May you always know the value of your work and your love.”
“In moments of weakness, you will find your greatest strength.”
This series is an interesting mix of mystery, family saga, light historical fiction, and romance. It’s really one huge story, chopped up into seven parts, so aside from the first one, The Seven Sisters, which introduces the series as well as features the oldest sister Maia, each book stands alone. The fifth instalment is just coming out in Feb 2019, so this series is very much still in progress. The author has shared that the seventh will wrap up the hidden plot running through all of the books, and the full story will be revealed. Questions will finally be answered, like, “Who is the mysterious Pa Salt and who is the seventh sister we haven’t met yet, but has a name?”
The Storm Sister is about Ally, a professional competitive sailor and closet musician. When tragedy strikes, Ally must rally (sorry :)) and her journey of recovery brings her (and us) into the classical music world of Edvard Grieg and Henrik Ibsen in Norway.
I’m really enjoying this series, and will definitely carry on with it, but it is not flawless. It’s not great literature and a bit too predictable, despite a few twists and turns, but I’ve enjoyed the historical aspects and the interesting settings around the world. Things do tend to work out rather amazingly well for all of the characters, who are a bit two-dimensional to be honest, but I cannot deny that this is a lovely easy-to-read modern family saga to get lost in. I am reassured also by the fact that this series was recommended to me by a man in my book club whose reading taste I respect, so it does have wide appeal and is worthwhile enough to chase away those ‘guilt about indulging in a cheesy romance’ feelings. This series just might help me make it through the winter–just one a month, doled out gradually like left-over Halloween candy…:)