With the addition of a new baby brother for Charlie, Isabel struggles with the common sorts of post-partum challenges like slight depression and sibling rivalry. Her life is happy and fulfilling enough, but Isabel still suffers from her usual weakness of getting herself embroiled in other people’s lives. She views this as a compelling urge towards helpfulness, but when does involvement become meddling and when is it time to mind your own business?
When the daily demands of work, children, and keeping the household become overwhelming, Isabel decides to employ both an assistant to help her edit the philosophical journal as well as an au pair to help around the house. She imagines her burdens being magically lifted, but of course, the additional staff cause an additional set of problems. Isabel finds herself embroiled in a number of dangerous situations with some rather unsavoury characters. I was finding that Smith’s writing in the last few years was becoming a bit less compelling, so I was pleasantly surprised that there was quite a bit more adventure in both of these.
The philosophical musing that Smith likes to do is inherent in this series especially because Isabel Dalhousie is an editor for a philosophical journal. As is true for many philosophers, her mind tends to wander when she thinks about the ways of human life and grapples with everyday moral and ethical questions. So is this the end for this series? We’ll have to wait and see. He has started a new series which is coming out this month called The Detective Varg Series set in Sweden which is more “Sandinavian Blanc” rather than Scandinavian Noir–featuring very odd, but not very threatening crimes. Sandy Smith is such a prolific writer, I always joke that he writes them faster than I can read them! See his website for a complete listing of all of his series. It’s like a big bag of chips–once you start, you won’t be able to stop!
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.
“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!
For fans of this author and his series, reading another instalment is like coming home and putting on an old sweatshirt at the end of a long and tiring workday. The languorous pace and comfort of familiarity kicks in immediately, along with the usual philosophical musings about the restorative nature of a cup of tea and such ponderings as how to approach forgiveness with grace. McCall Smith uses gentle humour to address serious life lessons.
Precious Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi have now been working together so long in this 17th instalment, offering their wisdom to the community in Gaborone, that there is a lot to recap in case someone is new to the series. The author does this skilfully, giving necessary background information that is necessary for newbies to this long running series, without making it cumbersome and boring for serious fans who have read them all. So I give the author kudos for doing that well. However, I didn’t find the mystery topics very intriguing this time.
A Canadian woman is looking to rediscover her childhood in Botswana and someone else close to Mma Ramotswe needs help unravelling from a dangerous pyramid scheme. Precious and Grace have other adventures and misadventures, one involving a puff adder (a traditionally built snake!), but in general the series is becoming much more ‘reflective’ than ‘detective’ which is too bad because its genius was always being able to be both of those in equal measures.
Recently a friend, who is an avid reader, commented to me that because she is in a distracted time in her life, she was finding it hard to focus on novels. That certainly has happened to me before too. She went on to say that the Smith series were so valuable to her during this time because they are so easy to read, approachable, and comforting, while still being full of really worthwhile stuff.
This is the genius of Smith’s series, whether it is the No. 1 Ladies Detective series, Isabel Dalhousie, or 44 Scotland Street… Smith’s everyday moral dilemmas, amusing commentary on human life, and situational humour, paired with his easy storytelling style make for such an enjoyable reading experience. And of course a series is immediately effortless because it simply carries on with characters that we already know. One of the perks of living in England for a few years, was being able to go to a lovely bookstore in London once a year to listen to ‘Sandy’ Smith talk about his books and his characters. With great charm and mirth he would talk about what his characters were up to now and what interesting situations they might be getting into in future, as if they were all perfectly real and part of our family. We, an audience full of strangers, were all chuckling right along with him.
This instalment in a series about an insatiably curious Scottish philosopher, has Isabel sorting out a high stakes crime, though weirdly without much peril or suspense. Somehow she attracts people who ask her to be involved in sleuthing out their mysteries. She usually manages to use the right combination of good sense, quick wits, and a kind heart to come to the right conclusion in the end.
In this unique collection, Alexander McCall Smith takes several anonymous old black-and-white photographs, and imagines the stories behind them. Who were these people and what was interesting about them? Why is that man sitting on that woman’s lap? Why is the little boy scowling on his tricycle? Who is changing the tire on that old car for the woman in the posh white coat? One reviewer aptly described it as ‘people watching’ in book form!
Smith’s talented imagination produces poignant tales of love and friendship in a variety of settings including an estate in Scotland, a travelling circus in Canada, an Australian gold-mining town, and a village in Ireland. The key to the entertainment of this simple prose is Smith’s beguiling story-telling and the immediate curiosity that the pictures evoke. These are marvellous little inventive pieces, quick to get into and inevitably ending way too soon.
This beautiful little volume makes a lovely gift because it is also an attractive book as object–a red hardcover, complete with glossy photographs, old-fashioned photo album corners, and a silk red ribbon bookmark. Since this is a stand alone novel, not part of any of his series, it would be a great introduction to Smith’s writing style for those who do not know him and a tasty treat for those who do.