Let’s start with what I did not like about The Blackhouse. I did not like the last 50 pages, where the Deus Ex Machinae (or, in this case, the Devil Ex Machinae, or the Devils, plural, Ex Machinae) suddenly descended to solve the mystery with utter disregard for the careful narrative so far. The rest of the book I found breathtaking, not so much the mystery, although it holds its own until those accursed last 50 pages, but more the landscape of the Isle of Lewis, whose wind stings our skin from the first chapter, and the wonderful character of the detective, who grew up on the island and rediscovers his childhood friends when he is sent there to investigate a murder that resembles one on the mainland. The story is told in alternating chapters between his childhood and the present, and satisfyingly so.
I must note that two key scenes take place as the Lewis islanders go hunting for gannet chicks on a rocky island — which figured in The Old Ways, recently reviewed here. And I can’t resist mentioning that this mystery thoughtfully includes a map of the island, which was sorely missing in the other one.
In the Isabel Dalhousie series, The Forgotten Affairs of Youth reads almost like a detective novel since Isabel is looking for a woman’s lost biological father and finds him, eventually, after the usual detours with the fox in the garden, the child in the nursery, the housekeeper’s occult stock tips, and poisoned mushrooms. Much more satisfying than the last one, I’m happy to report, even though the fiance and now husband seems to be less and less interesting and have less and less of a role.
How Many Friends Does One Person Need? is a series of essays originally written for scientific magazines and everyday newspapers about evolution by the namesake of the Dunbar number (150: the maximum group size for meaningful interactions). As could be expected of a collection of essays, some are better than others and as we progress into the book and the author unfailingly applies the same evolutionary hammer to varied topics one begins to wonder whether there may (should!) be other lenses to use on the world, but it is interesting to think that infectious disease medicine works to hasten evolution of “super bugs” or how ancient groupthink makes chain letters possible, even in a community of scientists. I also enjoyed the many asides about Scottish culture, including why Scots are so literate (to better read the Bible). It gives the book a pleasant homey feeling.
The Unbearable Lightness of Scones is the latest installment in the 44 Scotland Street series and it’s as delightful as the pastries in the title (which, actually, do not make more than one appearance in the story, and a fleeting one at that). The previous books contained remarkably little action but this one features a marriage, a near-drowning, the discovery of an unknown valuable painting, and the discovery of (another!) illegitimate birth — and that’s on top of the breakup of an engagement, a subsequent self-rediscovery, and the moving away of Bertie’s psychiatrist (and likely father of his brother).
One of the joys of the series is to feel “as if we were there”, which indeed could be a vast swindle since I’ve never traveled to Edinburgh. But this time there’s also a trip to Perth, Australia (for the honeymoon that follows, as honeymoons do, the wedding) and yes, that wide beach and its lifeguards all sound very, very true to life.
I can’t wait for the next one. Perhaps Bertie will finally turn 7!
American on Purpose is the memoir of the host of the Late, Late Show, which I have to admit I have never watched (no time for TV: how else do you think I read all these books?) Craig Ferguson has had a storied life including very humble beginnings as a musician and stand-up comic in his native Scotland and in England, and a spectacular career as an alcoholic and a drug-addict, which seems to have been cured once and for all in an English rehab clinic, the address of which should be shared with all in need. He talks kindly about everyone, ex-wives included, and seems to make fun mostly of himself, from when he was the designated holder of the dart board while his brother played to the night he spent sleeping in the parking lot of a sleazy casino when he learned he would host the Late, Late Show. And no prior knowledge of the man is required to enjoy his memoir: I was able to follow all his adventures without having ever heard of him or most of the other famous people he talks about.
The Lost Art of Gratitude is the last installment in the Isabel Dalhousie series, reviewed here in the past. There’s a significant dearth of any significant mystery in this one, but the usual complement of charming toddler, perfect husband-to-be, and nefarious plotter. I found Isabel to philosophize a tad too systematically so I hope the next installment will combine more mystery and less philosophy.
The World According to Bertie is in the 44 Scotland Street series like Espresso Tales and Love over Scotland and I’m glad to report that the series continues to improve. (It was a slow day at the library, and the mention of my favorite character, Bernie, right in the title, seemed to be a good omen for me to pick up the book.)
Bernie is still 6, still precocious, and still afflicted with a crazy helicopter mom who seems to dote much less on her new baby, little Ulysses (sic), even as said Ulysses looks suspiciously like Bernie’s therapist. Who knows what could have happened there? Other characters are finding love (Matthew) or convenient marriages (Bruce), and as usual the pleasure is in the reading of small adventures rather than the adventures themselves.
The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday is another installment of the Isabel Dalhousie series, one of at least three series written by Alexander McCall Smith. I don’t find this particular one to be anywhere as captivating as the Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency, reviewed here, but it still makes for satisfying and layered books, books that can be read in one (long) evening, which I like to do.
This book centers on a medical mystery, which surprised me until I re-read McCall Smith’s biography and was reminded that he teaches on medical law. (When does he find the time to write?) As all McCall Smith books, however, very little time is spent discussing the mystery and much more describing Isabel’s son, Charlie; her young lover (and her jealousy about him); her housekeeper, who just loves little Charlie as her own; her niece, Cat, who continues her poor choices of boyfriends; and, as always, the city of Edinburgh.
Another reliably enjoyable McCall Smith book.
Encouraged by reading Love over Scotland, the third volume of the 44 Scotland Street series, and not wanting to dwell on my disappointment with the first volume, I figured I would read the second volume, Espresso Tales and I found it disappointing as well (althought not as much — so perhaps the trend is up and the fourth volume will be wonderful!)
There’s a very boring memoir by a lawyer with a poor memory: not a good combination, and it puts even his own wife to sleep. There’s a failed wine shop with a not-so-honest would-be owner. Even the nudist picinic is boring… Fortunately our friend Bertie, 6 in this book as as precocious as always, delivers the fun including slipping into the school of his choice and discovering that rugby isn’t quite what he thought it could be, and playing a card game with a thug that charms even the thug.
If you’re an Alexander McCall Smith fan, remember that each chapter is helpfully titled with the main protagonist and only read the ones about Bertie…
Part of the 44 Scotland Street series by the prolific Alexander McCall Smith, better known for his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, Love Over Scotland brings back many of the characters from the prior books in the series. My favorites are Bertie, a precocious six-year old with a neurotic mother and Cyril, a dog with a keen dislike of The Scotsman, the newspaper used by his owner to swat him when he misbehaves. Bertie’s trip with Paris with the Edinburgh Teenage Orchestra (really!) and Cyril’s theft from the front of an Italian deli are great showcases of the author’s ability to project authentic voices from a wide range of characters.
Not much happens in Love Over Scotland, as is the case in other Smith books, but the stories pull in the reader and include many humorous asides, including Bertie’s crazy psychiatrist’s musings and the unexpected discoveries of an anthropologist’s trip to Malaysia.
A nit: couldn’t an author as successful as McCall Smith get assigned a good proofreader? Big, confusing typo on page 47 of the soft cover edition…