Lately I’ve been a serial reader, which in literary terms is binging on a series…hmmm, my husband and I are also know for doing that with television series, watching as many as possible on a weekend evening…perhaps there is a pattern emerging. But it is just so relaxing and satisfying to keep finding out what happens next to these characters that we have come to know so very well. Book series are a great way to hook young children into reading as well! Actually 44 Scotland Street is in fact a real serial read, an episodic novel which has appeared weekly in The Scotsman for years. In fact it is the longest running newspaper serial in the world.
Alexander McCall Smith has a series of series :), which you can check out on his website. He is such a prolific writer I find it hard to keep up–he writes them quicker than I can read them! I’ve been catching up on McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street since Bertie Plays the Blues and reconnecting with all of those benignly problematic and amusing Edinburgh residents who I now feel I would recognize if I met them on the street. And McCall Smith’s novels are not just feel good stories with no substance…moral and ethical dilemmas abound!
For fans who already know the characters, here is a glimpse of the latest. Poor Bertie who has been six for a very long time (several years, in fact) finally turns seven. His over-protective annoying mother wins a ticket to Dubai but ends up being kidnapped by a Bedouin sheikh where she starts a book club in the harem. No one at home seems to miss her very much, in fact granny Nicola is much more fun to have around. Stuart continues to have trouble locating his car after he has parked it and Matthew discovers a secret room in his new house. Bruce is his usual narcissistic self but for once it gets put to good use. Angus Lordie and Domenica get married and Cyril, Angus’ dog, gets his master into trouble by lapping up a bowl of Guinness in the local pub.
Why do the sequels of some authors fall flat and others produce multiple instalments in series that just go on and on successfully? I was at a Young Adult genre workshop once where it was remarked, “Every child need a series at some point.” Series just encourage reading, for children and for adults. It’s the comfort of not having to “work at” learning the context of the novel and of meeting the characters again, because they have become like old friends.
To a certain extent, writing a series must be a bit taxing for the author since some background must be given in each new book, just in case someone has not read any of the previous ones. McCall Smith handles this seamlessly, slipping in interesting anecdotes and necessary history about a character as he goes along, not necessarily in the tiresome way some do, with lengthy explanations clustered into the opening chapters.
For fans of the No. 1 Ladies Detective series, this is the 15th. Someone opens a new cafe in town, someone gets fired, Mma Makutsi’s shoes start talking again, and the author produces a rather interesting rant towards the end of the book on the importance of matrons. A matron is a senior nurse overseeing a department, often in a hospital. Smith shared with us, when we listened to him speak in London last month, that he thought what is needed in this country is the return of the matron, and many British heads in the audience were bobbing up and down in agreement. Perhaps budget cuts changed all that, but I recently saw an announcement that the British Government was bringing back “modern matrons”, perhaps in response to recent complaints of dirty ineffective hospitals where patients do not receive proper care.
Always a bit philosophical and political, always entertaining, Alexander McCall Smith enjoys writing his characters as much as we enjoy reading them. And always necessary, with the plethora of books he has written, here is a link to his website:
Alexander McCall Smith Website
Last night I managed to gobble up this new little book in one sitting! It’s described as a literary “amuse-bouche” – a single bite-sized hors d’oeurve. A tasty little treat, perfect for stuffing – a stocking not a turkey, that is!
Cornelius and Betty O’Leary take a trip of a lifetime to Ireland, the land of their roots. But as so often is the case, the trip becomes very different from what they had imagined. The nostalgia soon begins to fade when the luggage gets lost and it doesn’t stop there, calamity and mayhem ensue in proportion to Fatty’s size. McCall Smith’s priceless sense of humour is pitched just right in this little volume. But he also grapples with an aspect of the immigrant experience. Going back often doesn’t match the dear memories of the ‘old country’ or live up to the family folklore.
Recently I heard this author speak at Daunt Books in London, which is happily now becoming a yearly event for me! When he reads from his books and talks about his characters, with tears running down his cheeks (and all of ours) from laughing, you realize how much he loves his writing. This book is not part of any series and joins his other ‘stand alone’ books. Incidentally, another recent book of his, is a modern day rewrite of Jane Austen’s Emma.
Emma by Alexander McCall Smith
In case you need a Christmas gift for someone who is following the No. 1 Ladies Detective series, this is the latest and fourteenth instalment. The title made me smile because when we lived in Tanzania there were so many hair salons that had interesting names…in fact many of them were “Saloons”, making we wonder if they offered drinks as well as beauty treatments!
Mma Ramotswe is in fine form once again, even though she is short staffed at the Detective Agency because Mma Makutsi has had a baby! Sometimes it takes an absence to underscore how much someone means to us. It’s not always easy to identify your enemies, a snake can be an ally, and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is just trying so hard to be a modern husband! There is always tension between the modern and traditional ways!
One thing I appreciate about Smith is how he masterfully weaves in earlier points to “catch up” the new reader who may be picking up the 14th as their first instalment. I would imagine that is not an easy thing to do well, but he does it seamlessly, without boring the avid fan.
How much longer can this series go on? To be honest, I was going to comment on whether the books have been getting better or worse. But I just can’t, because these characters have become like family. It would just be wrong to make a judgement. They demand to be read because they have been written and because I want to keep up and spend time with the characters I have come to know so well. This gentle, much-loved series is still relaxing to read, wise about human nature, funny, and very African.
Is this what is meant by compulsive reading? It’s like eating chips, or enjoying cookies straight out of the oven, it’s impossible to stop at one! As a break before the next ‘heavier’ book I need to read, I thought I would squeeze in another of the 44 Scotland Street series, and yes, it became two! I had to spend just a bit more time with these characters and discover if there would be any break for Bertie from his overbearing mother, any happiness on the horizon for Matthew, and perhaps news on who the father of Ulysses really is. Would Cyril bite anymore ankles and would Stuart ever be able to remember where he parked his car?
Alexander McCall Smith fans will be envious to hear that I had an opportunity to hear him speak at a marvellous old bookstore in London called Daunt Books. The store is an original Edwardian with oak balconies, skylights and a fantastic window. Books seem even more magical on Daunt shelves, and I always buy a book in independent bookstores like this to make sure they can survive. This little gem is a must-see right alongside Big Ben & Buckingham if you ever come to London!
The author was in fine form that evening. What an engaging speaker, and I realized that the reason for his animation is that he truly loves the characters in his books (and that’s why we do too–it’s contagious!). He launched into his talk speaking about Bertie and Isobel and Mma Ramotswe as if they were old friends, his own chuckles bubbling up as he discussed their recent misfortunes or speculated on future foibles. And surely they are ‘old friends’ to all of us, if we know the series well. Palpable in the room of fans was this odd feeling that somehow, though all strangers to each other, we were linked by a group of fictional people!
Here’s a clip from a talk in Toronto where he reads from this instalment–it gives a flavour of what he’s like in person – a delight to listen to.